Accountability and Executive Compensation

The issue of executive compensation at UC and CSU is regularly in the news, with top salaries, “stipends,” and other perks for leaders increasing at the same time that student fees climb, quality erodes, and faculty and staff salaries backslide. Also the rate of growth of administrator ranks compared to the rate of growth of students and faculty (see our posting “Soon every faculty member will have a personal senior manager: Is this a good way to spend money?”)

Regents justify these compensation packages (e.g. this San Francisco Chronicle article) in the current environment, as in the past, on the basis of the complex “business of running a $19 billion, 180,000-employee enterprise — 10 campuses, five medical centers, research laboratories and a multitude of programs.” They say, “The University of California competes with the world’s premier institutions, both in terms of recruitment and retention. And top talent requires competitive compensation, an unavoidable fact of life.”

This view reflects a corporate mentality that sees the quality of higher education as determined by top executives, not students, faculty and staff.

More important, it is a symptom of the creeping privatization of higher education. As the governors reduce public support for UC and CSU, more and more of UC and CSU’s leaders’ time goes to private fundraising, less to administering higher education as a public trust. From this perspective, privatized universities have to pay private sector salaries to the people at the top.

An alternative view? The universities need to compete for the best people at the bottom.  Because fees for graduate students are increasing rapidly, and their departments and research programs have to pay those fees, UC no longer offers competitive support packages for the best graduate students at the heart of its research programs.  (For these students, a $2,000 difference in a fellowship offer is a lot of money.)  University teaching and research are both declining because of this inability to win the competition for the best graduate students (e.g. see this Competetive Graduate Student Financial Support Advisory Committee report).

The quality of the students has always been one reason that faculty and staff have been attracted to and stayed at UC, despite its historically low salaries.

The fact that UC and CSU are complex enterprises does not, by itself, justify the high executive salaries. For comparison, the California Secretary of Health and Human Services administers complex programs ranging from MediCal to preventing swine flu pandemics to patient privacy to tobacco prevention that had a state budget of $4.6 billion in 2007-08.   She is paid $170,000.

Restoring public support for higher education will require restoring a management compensation scheme consistent with a public institution (for more on this topic see also this San Francisco Chronicle editorial).

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