University executives’ pay and “fat cat” faculty

The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s yearly “Executive Compensation and Private and Public Colleges” is making the rounds again on Facebook, which got me thinking about some of the problems faculty face in using information like this.

Asking why executives deserve so much money invites bad actors to answer “You’re right. Let’s not pay anybody well!” Every time I see a list like this, I immediately want to demand that, like faculty, management justify their pay according to the value they bring their institutions. Put another way–while James Ramsey was president of the University of Louisville (which he was when this survey was published), what on Earth did he to earn this kind of money?

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To be fair, the base salary is only (!) about $330K; let’s work with the figure of $330K.

The Louisville Business Journal compiled a database of U of L and UK employees (using 2016 salary figures). I generated a list of English Department faculty at U of L (I’m not going to name any names here). The highest paid faculty member in English makes over half the president’s base; the next highest about half; the third highest about 40%. Most faculty in the department make less than 1/3 the president’s base salary, and eight of the forty-four listed faculty earn roughly 10%.

In case the point isn’t clear:

What actual work justifies such a massive pay differential between him and the faculty who do the teaching and research that comprise the function of a university? I’m not arguing that he doesn’t “do anything.” Part of me thinks he needs to answer for how much state money he’s pocketing–not just relative to his own job description, but also relative to what other people at his institution earn for labor that, frankly, the university could do without less than they could do without his. (If that’s not true, then the proof is exactly what I’m asking for.)

The problem making this argument to decision-makers is that challenging the value of somebody else’s labor is unlikely to increase anyone’s perception of the value of yours. So my gut reaction to want to demand it is probably not tactically very sound.

Misunderstandings about university work allows purse-string-yankers to conflate…a whole bunch of things…

Given the inconsistent terminology for positions even within academic circles, why would I expect my neighbor to know or care a whole lot about what an Associate Vice President for University Advancement and Director of Sponsored Research? At the same time, a curious neighbor can look at a list like the Louisville Business Journal’s (or similar projects) and see that lots of people who work at Nearby University are making well into six figures in base salary. If you see those numbers and don’t really know/care how those titles differ from “Professor,” it’s easy to believe that most people at the university (except people serving food and cleaning, but who thinks about them?) are making lofty sums.

The consequences of the problem aren’t clear until the (mis)information gets to people who want to undercut faculty and/or public institutions. Too often they get away with claims like “Look at how much those people are getting paid” without acknowledging (although they know) that we aren’t all the same people. Because neither their handlers nor their constituents have much reason to care about the difference between an Assistant Vice Provost and Director of [insert office here] and an Associate Professor and Director of [insert program here], the fact that one probably makes three times the salary of the other doesn’t register. Worse even: the Assistant Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the University Writing Center (NTT) whose salary is probably one sixth (if that) the Assistant Vice Provost, but the title is just as oblique!

Because most voters and handlers of legislators don’t have a stake in pushing back against this conflation, faculty are largely left to our own devices–and it’s hard to do without sounding defensive, self-aggrandizing, or both.

As management becomes more populated by people without academic credentials/experience, and by people who are friends with those same people who already don’t like us, it makes the reach of that mis/dis-information campaign even longer.

Even bracketing off malice as a motive for letting this situation get so toxic, it’s become easier for university upper-management and state-level decision-makers to be too cozy as their backgrounds have become less distinct–or sometimes (e.g., Mitch Daniels at Purdue; John Thrasher at Florida State) literally indistinct. Or like Bruce Harreld (forgot about him, hadn’t you?) at the University of Iowa: a corporation-friendly governor installs a big-businessman as president, thus ensuring the circular logic necessary to (self-)justify that move.

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The university needs to be run like a business. Why? Because we needed a businessman to run it. How do we know he’s doing well? Because he says so. How do we know how well he ought to be compensated? Because we believe businessmen. Neat.

So what’s the point here?

This problem has been building for years, and faculty haven’t handled it well. We’ve allowed powerful people with bad (ranging from malicious to selfish) motives to mix misleading data with misunderstood university structures to produce a public impression of faculty as a bunch of overpaid [choose your own slur].

Responding well is complicated. Once something is as entrenched in public discourse as the overpaid-faculty meme, it’s hard to dislodge–just like any meme. In this case, it’s also hard because what it means to “win” the argument isn’t obvious.

But a couple of things I think are probably true about our approach.

1. I don’t think highlighting pay disparity helps–certainly not as the central argument. It’s especially problematic when people making comfortable middle-class salaries are the ones doing it.

2. This is not an argument (as if it were just one) to make in “the public sphere” (as if there were such a thing) with the expectation that “winning” it would change anything. A bunch of newspaper op-eds explaining what faculty “really do” isn’t the answer. It’s not harmful (done carefully), but there’s no reason to expect it to accomplish much.

3. The heart of the argument (I’m hardly the first person to say this) is that students and faculty come first because we’re the reason universities (colleges, community colleges, all of us) exist.

OK, this has gone on long enough. I’ll revive a question I’ve asked before as a way of hitting the brakes.

Who does it help:

To pay a university president $330,000?

To insult faculty work ethic?

To pretend damaging public institutions is about helping students?


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