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Editorial: Educational Bonanza

What goes up must come down — except in higher education, where the laws of physics don’t seem to apply. Tuition goes up year after year. So goes student debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion. And up go the paychecks of college presidents.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this month in its annual survey of private colleges and universities, three dozen leaders earned in excess of $1 million in 2010-2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That included Dartmouth’s president at the time, Jim Yong Kim, whose total compensation came to $1,084,885, almost $481,000 more than his predecessor, Jim Wright, made in 2008.

The trend has been clear for a long time. The number of college presidents earning more than $1 million has grown from just five in 2004 to 36 in 2010, and those earning more than $500,000 tripled from 50 to 157. The median compensation among this group wasn’t too shabby, either, at $397,860.

Does anyone here have a problem with that? Yeah, we do.

First, private colleges and universities aggressively defend their tax-exempt status as institutions dedicated to the public good. OK, but they are also the beneficiaries of public funds, including federal research grants and federal student aid programs, both of which keep them in business, so to speak. Such lavish pay packages, even if they don’t have a significant impact on college budgets overall, aren’t consistent with their charitable mission.

Furthermore, as Chronicle reporter Jack Stripling pointed out, many institutions provided their top executives with cash to cover taxes on bonuses and other benefits, a practice known as “grossing up.” Gross it is. Such perks shouldn’t be tolerated in academia any more than in business and industry.

Then there’s the lack of proportionality. Why should college presidents receive so much more than the typical faculty member? There’s a widely held belief that professors’ pay has risen exponentially, contributing to the high cost of college. But this is a myth. Professors’ salaries have actually stagnated, along with workers’ wages generally, and any gains have been swallowed up by inflation. The average salary for professors of all ranks was $82,556 last year, according to the American Association of University Professors. That’s a living wage, to be sure, but many make far less as assistant professors and adjuncts. Furthermore, full-time faculty salaries rose by less than 2 percent between 2006 and 2010, while presidents’ salaries jumped 9.8 percent. There have been proposals to index presidential salaries to faculty salaries. That’s an idea we’d like to see widely implemented.

Finally, the overly generous salaries and benefits bestowed by boards of trustees on college presidents are an affront to students, many of whom incur large amounts of debt to attend college in the first place. On average, students graduate owing more than $26,000 and enter an uncertain job market.

This is not to say that college presidents don’t deserve fair compensation for a job that has become more and more difficult, in part because of financial pressures that are, according to some, threatening the viability of private higher education itself. The thinking is that colleges, in order to recruit and retain talented leaders, must compete against the corporate sector. Perhaps the problem lies there, and in the apparent tolerance for widening income inequality generally. If so, colleges and universities — one of society’s great levelers — shouldn’t tacitly legitimize those disparities. They should consider more carefully both the symbolic and substantive impact of presidential earnings, and serve as models for moderation.

Related

Letter: Dartmouth’s Profligate Generosity

Friday, December 28, 2012

To the Editor: Your Dec. 19 editorial, “Educational Bonanza,” decrying the enormous salaries paid to college presidents was right on the mark as regards Dartmouth’s former president Jim Kim. How could the college’s trustees justify paying Kim over a million dollars in his first year at Dartmouth, when this sum was substantially greater than the compensation paid to the experienced …