Gregory Fenves recently got a big promotion, from provost to president of the University of Texas at Austin. A raise came with it. Instead of his current base of about $425,000, he was offered $1 million.
And he rejected it — as too much.
“With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature,” Fenves wrote to a university official, in an email obtained by The Austin American-Statesman and published last week.
He suggested, and agreed to, $750,000.
That’s hardly chump change. But in the context of the shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents, the sum — or, more precisely, the sentiment behind it — is worthy of note and praise.
Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.
Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice.
But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar.
For E. Gordon Gee’s final year as the president of Ohio State University, which he left in 2013, he got a package of more than $6 million, as was widely reported. It was a one-time bonanza, including deferred payments and severance, but he’d earned roughly $2 million annually over the previous years.
The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed salary information for private colleges from 2012, the most recent year available, and found that Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received more than $7 million.
Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters.
They reason that “this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,” said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me. “They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.”
Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority.
How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? How do you cut administrative costs, which indeed need cutting? How do you explain steep tuition increases, mammoth student debt and the failure to admit more children from poor families?
How do you summon students back to the liberal arts and away from mercenary priorities?
The high salaries are frequently defended on the grounds that a university president’s job is all consuming. But if it is, how do so many of them find time to serve, for hundreds of thousands of extra dollars, on corporate boards? Rensselaer’s Jackson was at one point on five boards simultaneously.
The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fundraising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment?
The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.
And like the private enrichment of many politicians who speak of “public service,” it’s not just a mirror of our pervasive money culture. It’s a green light for it, from precincts of principle where a flashing yellow would be more appropriate.