More than any region, the Midwest lavishes seven-figure pay packages on the presidents of its big public universities. At the same time, too many of these universities are trimming full-time faculty while their students run up some of the biggest student loan debt in the nation.
It’s time to ask whether students at the Midwest’s flagship schools are getting their money’s worth.
All this comes from the list of executive compensation at public colleges published annually by The Chronicle Of Higher Education, and a new paper, “The One Percent at State U,” issued by a progressive Washington think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).
All by himself at the top was E. Gordon Gee, the gaffe-prone and free-spending president of Ohio State, with total compensation of $6,057,615, with a base pay of $851,303 and the rest in perks, including deferred compensation. Gee’s total was more than 12 times the median compensation for public university presidents nationwide.
Hamid A. Shirvani, president of the South Dakota University system, ranked third at $1,311,095. Sally Mason, the president of the University of Iowa, was fifth, with $1,139,705, Michael A. McRobbie of Indiana University was sixth at $1,111,924, and Mary Sue Coleman at the University of Michigan was ninth with $1,037,357.
Apparently, money can’t buy contentment. Both Gee and Shirvani have since quit their jobs, as has the second-biggest earner, R. Bowen Loftin, who left his $1.6 million post at Texas A&M for a new post at yet another Midwestern flagship university, Missouri.
The presidents of the University of Houston, the University of Georgia, the University of South Alabama, and the University of California system rounded out the list of top 10 earners.
University trustees who sign off on these salaries usually say they’re necessary to get top leaders, or to keep their presidents from going to other campuses. Neither is true. Gee, Shrivani, and Loftin decamped, despite their lofty salaries. And the presidents of Wisconsin and North Carolina, both first-rate schools, earn less than $500,000 in total compensation. Robert Easter, the highly-respected president of the University of Illinois, not only earns $450,000 but agreed to a package that was about $200,000 below that of his predecessor.
None of the top-paying schools may be a diploma mill, but except for Michigan and California, few stand at the pinnacle of American higher education. Most are better known for their football teams than their research.
This comparison between athletics and scholarship isn’t incidental. Most of these schools reserve their really big paydays for coaches. At Ohio State, for instance, the base salaries for football coach Urban Meyer ($4.6 million) and basketball coach Thad Matta ($3.2 million) leave Gee, with his measly $851,000, looking like a street person.
(Gee apparently was popular at Ohio State, although from outside it’s hard to see why. Over the years, he and his wife were regularly criticized for lavish personal spending, and Gee himself specialized in bad jokes that insulted, among others, Poland, Catholics, and the Little Sisters of the Poor. He usually apologized, although it took him six months to say “I’m sorry” to the Catholics.)
As noted, these big paychecks would be easier to justify if they reflected academic excellence. They also would be more acceptable if we knew that they weren’t eating into their schools’ real mission, which is to educate students. This may be in doubt.
The IPS study found a correlation between outsize presidential pay and the growth in student debt. In addition, these schools that paid big money at the top were more likely to cut back on full-time faculty and resort to underpaid adjunct teachers instead.
Again, the chief offenders were Midwestern—led by Ohio State, followed by Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan.
One of the authors, Marjorie Wood, told The New York Times that high executive pay doesn’t necessarily lead directly to higher student debt or fewer faculty. “But if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases, and more administrative spending.”
Specifically, the IPS found that:
- The recession didn’t even slow up top executive pay. Average executive pay at all public research universities went up 14 percent from 2009 to 2012 but, at the 25 high-paying schools, it rose by a third.
- At the same 25, student debt increased 13 percent faster than the national average.
- At the top 25, the number of adjunct faculty rose more than twice as fast as the national average. At the same time, the number of permanent faculty in these schools rose only half as fast as the average.
The IPS report said that student debt at Ohio State rose 23 percent faster than the national average from 2010 to 2012. During the same period, it said, Ohio State hired 670 new administrators, 498 adjunct or contingent (non-permanent) faculty, and only 45 permanent faculty.
At Minnesota, it said, permanent faculty went down 9 percent and adjuncts increased 223 percent in the 2010-12 period.
Running a big university is hard work that demands coping with faculty egos, student hormones, parental nagging, and donor fatigue. But the skyrocketing pay at some schools seems more similar to that at corporations, where CEO pay often has more to do with friendly boards than with actual performance.
And a winning football team sure helps.
It seems a clear-cut cause for a taxpayer revolution. Except that, as we’ve noted before, tax-payers have pretty much stopped paying for these big state schools. As state aid to these schools shrink, these institutions rely ever more on contracts with corporations, on philanthropic giving—and on student debt.