By Richard Vedder
One of the joys of serving on a national commission is meeting lots of first-rate persons --people of intelligence, energy, creativity, and integrity. One of my favorites from my days on the Spellings Commission was Jim Duderstadt, emeritus president of the University of Michigan and one of the brightest minds around today.
Some time ago, Jim sent me a copy of his book The View from the Helm, which I am finally getting around to thoroughly read. It is a gem of a book, full of bon mots, wisdom, and humor. Every aspiring University president should read it --not to mention every university trustee, chairs of education committees of state legislative groups, members of state governing boards, etc.
I was particularly interested in Jim's views on presidential compensation. As a long-time faculty member, I have been worried that my negative feelings towards the explosion of salaries of college presidents reflect typical faculty resentment rather than something more substantive. I find, however, that Jim agrees with me:
"...the recent inflation in presidential compensation, with salaries no longer simply at the top of the faculty but now beginning to approach those of even football coaches...is driving a wedge not only between the faculty and the administration but between the public and higher education."
Jim goes on to say that "rewarding a university president like a corporate CEO threatens to open up a psychological gap between the faculty and the administration (where the faculty no longer views the president...as 'one of us'), thereby decoupling the president from the academic core of the university and undercutting his or her effectiveness as leading the institution." Jim went on to quote similar sentiments from the iconic Derek Bok, twice Harvard prez.
I quite agree with these views. I ask the question: is it necessary to pay presidents two or three times as much as the highest paid faculty member? I think the answer is no. I think faculty members are overwhelmingly liberal politically, brimming with resentment over inequalities. I think that this type of behavior is an invitation at lesser quality institutions for faculty unionization --a disaster of the highest order in terms of forging a university learning community based on trust, collegiality and consensus.
My attitudes on this, however, strengthened enormously Friday while I was in Washington, D.C., interacting with legislators and staff from two organizations --the National Council of State Legislators (NCSL) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In talking with persons associated with both groups the question arose about rising compensation levels, especially at the highest levels. The public is growing weary of providing economic rent to universities that seem, to them, to be contemptuous of the rising concerns over tuition fees. One asked me if it was possible to do a study on higher education compensation levels-- not a bad idea. Public university presidents complain that state appropriations are a shrinking portion of their budgets --how true. But try to do without them. Barry Goldwater once said "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." While that may be debatable, I think "moderation in the compensation of university presidents is a virtue" is unquestionably valid.