Washington's million-dollar university president

As Mark Emmert joins two local corporate boards, boosting his yearly income well into seven figures, it's worth asking if he's really earned it. He's a prominent public face for the institution, but he's no scholar and doesn't actually run the university.
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Mark Emmert

As Mark Emmert joins two local corporate boards, boosting his yearly income well into seven figures, it's worth asking if he's really earned it. He's a prominent public face for the institution, but he's no scholar and doesn't actually run the university.

My first reaction on learning of the new financial compensations being heaped on University of Washington President Mark Emmert was to disbelieve it. My second reaction, as a proud and loyal UW almunus, was to reach back for the old and famous plaint of the Chicago kid dissilusioned by Shoeless Joe Jackson's involvement in the infamous Black Sox scandal: "Say it ain't so, Joe."

The University of Washington regents have unanimously approved corporate board memberships for Emmert, at Expeditors International and Weyerhaeuser, that provide him with an extra $340,000 a year on top of the more than $1 million in salary, deferred compensation, and other benefits (including free use of a presidential mansion) he receives from the university.

Only last November, Emmert received a raise of more than $150,000 from the regents, making him the highest-paid president of American public university. It was stated at the time that regents feared he would accept a private-sector job and leave the university. He had received a $100,000 raise the previous year.

The regents like Emmert. According to all accounts, he spends a good deal of time in their company. He is an active fundraiser, pressing hard in Olympia for more public money for the university and trying, in particular, to generate major gifts from corporate, foundation, and alumni donors. His critics at the university – mainly internal – fault him for spending almost all his time on external issues and leaving the running of the institution to relatively new lieutenants and deans. Faculty, needless to say, resent the huge amounts of money being lavished on Emmert while their own salary increases lag those at comparable public universities nationally. There also is dissatisfaction on campus with unresolved dean searches and what is considered the mediocrity of several sitting deans and school directors.

The University of Washington presidency is Emmert's first. He came to us after running Lousiana State University's Baton Rouge campus. Unlike several prior UW presidents, he is not a scholar. He is, in fact, one of the new generation of managers and operators who have become more numerous in academic leadership. It is easy to imagine him at another major public university but difficult to envisage him at a leading private university or at Berkeley or Ann Arbor.

I have heard several Emmert public presentations. He gives a good booster speech but gives no evidence of thoughtfulness or depth. That need not matter if Emmert can raise money, attract quality deans and faculty, manage the campus, and oversee rising academic standards at the institution.

I certainly would not propose that Emmert be replaced. Nor am I particularly bothered that he appears to delegate on-campus governance to others – if that results in a well-run campus that meets high standards. I am puzzled, however, by the regents' ceaseless efforts to give him more money. When he received his $150,000 raise last year, someone privy to the discussions told me that Emmert had sought it and had intimated he might seek a corporate job if his compensation did not rise further. That would have been an unusual move. I cannot at first thought recall a single university president who has moved on to a higher-paying private sector job, although there must have been at least a few.

Time was when university presidents, as university faculty members, were not in it for the money. Otherwise, it was presumed, they would be in the corporate or financial worlds in the first place – just as those in public service would not be drawing modest salaries but would likewise be going for the green. It was a lifetime ago, but I recall when serving as Vice President Hubert Humphrey's assistant, that Humphrey drew a $43,000 salary plus some additional perks, which did not cover the cost of his rental housing.

The president of the United States draws less compensation than Emmert. I know, you will cite in response Babe Ruth's famous statement when he was asked how he could justify being paid more than President Calvin Coolidge: "I had a better year than Coolidge," the Babe replied.

Mark Emmert and many other Americans had better years than President Bush. But compensation creep has plagued American business and finance in recent years. It is a major reason for the embitterment of hourly and salaried workers, and shareholders, who see management compensation as being grossly out of line. Should this creep extend as well to a public institution such as the University of Washington?

The regents themselves mainly come from professional environments where outrageous compensation packages are normal. But what signal are they sending to university faculty, administrators, students, alumni, and Washington taxpayers when they keep loading money onto Emmert?

I wish Emmert well because I wish my university well. But please, enough is enough.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.