How sweet it is, atop the pyramid of academe

As presidents and other top administrators step down to princely teaching posts, faculties with frozen salaries are outraged. Here are some examples of how the compensation game is played in our top universities.

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UW, the Harvard of the Northwest?

As presidents and other top administrators step down to princely teaching posts, faculties with frozen salaries are outraged. Here are some examples of how the compensation game is played in our top universities.

Remember Richard McCormick, the not-very-admired former U.W. president who left in 2001 to take the top job at Rutgers University? McCormick is now retiring from that Rutgers post and returning to teaching. What has riled up faculty and others is that the step down from his $550,000 salary to be a mere history professor is being eased by a new salary of $335,000, making him the highest-paid teacher on campus, according to a story in the Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hasn't weighed in so far, but faculty and unions are pretty steamed, since the state university has frozen salaries and canceled raises for union members in the past year. Students should be steamed as well, with that outsized salary going to an American history professor by now way out of practice in his field.

McCormick is hardly unusual in this dubious custom in academe, cushioning a demotion handsomely as a way to both encourage faculty to take administrative jobs in the first place and to help push those who don't work out back down the ladder. Here's a further example from Rutgers. Phil Furmanski, a cancer researcher, has resigned as the state university's executive vice president for academic affairs. According to the newspaper account, he'll take a one-year leave, during which he'll continue to receive his $450,000-a-year salary. Then, if he returns to teaching, his pay will be $290,000 a year. Also, he is eligible for a $400,000 bonus, extracted three years ago when he was being wooed by other universities.

This pattern outraged many in 2008 when Washington State University's provost, Steven Hoch, who lasted only seven explosive weeks on the job, left that post and took up a teaching position in Russian history at the contract-guaranteed nine-elevenths of his salary as provost. His $245,000 salary as a history prof at WSU-Tri-Cities naturally infuriated the rest of the faculty.

Most universities, including U.W., say they only rarely grant such golden parachutes, and only at the most senior positions. Even if that's true, which I doubt, that overlooks just how high salaries have become for these administrative posts. Indeed, the Mark Emmert and Provost Phyllis Wise years were noted for paying very top dollar, and not just to Emmert and football coaches. Provost Wise's salary was $410,000 (not counting her controversial Nike board position, which she donated back to U.W.), and her new compensation as chancellor of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus will be $500,000, according to reports. The new law school dean, Kellye Teste, for instance, was hired at an annual salary of $352,000.

Now, some context. Top positions at universities are hard saddles to stay in, so many won't take the job (moving away from a tenured post) without such golden guarantees. Normally they insist on also being given a tenured post at some department in the university so that they can't be fired, though they can be booted from the administrative post. Customarily they insist on a good position for the trailing spouse (another practice that fuels resentment in the departments forced to make room for the spouse). Rising universities, like Rutgers and U.W., can't be too stingy.

A related area of bloat is the number of deans and deanlets in these research powerhouses. This is the subject of a new book, The Fall of the Faculty, by Benjamin Ginsberg, who deplores the way faculty members have deeded over governance to an army of bureaucrats. According to a Wall St. Journal ($) review, the number of administrators has increased 85 percent, 1975-2005, and staffs have grown 240 percent. In this same period, costs of attending universities have tripled and faculty-student ratios have remained the same.

"Forty years ago," reviewer Carl Elliott notes, "professors themselves managed university affairs, often spending limited stints in administration as a professional obligation before returning to teaching and research. But as professional administrators have proliferated, professos, having little stomach for endless committee meetings and inane business jargon, have been happy to give up their managerial responsibilities....As a result, professors have sacrificed much of their influence over their own institutions."

Another factor is that these tops posts increasingly are mostly about raising money and angling for grants. Presidents like Emmert, who loves hanging out with tycoons and rich donors, come to feel that they need to "keep up." They join all the elite clubs, reciprocate on invitations to posh weekends, dress the role. (Symphony conductors are also susceptible to this pattern.) Lavish expense accounts and free mansions can go only so far. After a while, it's important to have a salary that is not an embarrassment among such peers, and when the salary is public knowledge...well, you get the idea.

That said, it's hard to see how this pattern of merrily escalating salaries and lavish benefits can continue. It's said that two factors more than any others sank the U.W. with the Legislature in recent years. One was the request for public funds to expand Husky Stadium, when rich donors and naming grants were standing by. The other was Emmert's right-at-the-top salary ($906,000 plus another $340,000 he made from two corporate boards) and his refusal (until way too late) to relinquish some of it in the light of all the cuts others were taking in the recession.

Somehow, I'm not encouraged that the salary of the new U.W. president, Michael Young is about $800,000, a mighty jump from his University of Utah salary of $423,000, according to Seattle Weekly calculations. The chair of the U.W. board of regents, Herb Simon, noted that Young's salary was $100,000 less than Emmert's, calling this sad necessity reflective of "the economic conditions the state of Washington is facing."


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