How Campus Chiefs Ace Executive Excess 101

Sam Pizzigati

These haven’t been the best of times for the young men and women attending America’s colleges and universities. Or for the faculty who teach them.

Those students are graduating, if they can afford to get that far, with levels of debt that would have seemed unimaginable a few decades ago. In 2012, the nation’s total student debt hit $1.2 trillion — and topped, for the first time, the sum total of America’s household credit card debt.

Faculty haven’t been faring particularly well either. Only a third of the nation’s faculty members currently hold regular full-time permanent positions. All the rest labor on a “contingency” basis. They either get paid by the course or have one- or two- year full-time appointments that carry no long-term job security.

“Adjunct” faculty typically make just $2,700 for every course they teach. Overall, they annually take home a median $22,000 a year, an income that sits below the official federal poverty rate for a family of four.

These paltry paychecks leave adjuncts forever scrambling to pack their weekly schedules with as many extra courses as they can arrange. And these ever-heavier teaching loads, in turn, leave adjuncts without adequate time for either preparing for their classes or mentoring students one-on-one.

Amid all this financial squeezing, students lose out and faculty feel chronically frustrated. One recent study found a stunning 98 percent of adjuncts acknowledging they were “missing opportunities to better serve their students.”

Not a pretty picture. So what should the trustees of America’s colleges and universities be doing to start painting a brighter future?

Here’s one fix-it these trustees ought to studiously avoid: paying more to higher education’s highest executives.

Over the past decade, a just-published Institute for Policy Studies report details, many of America’s most prestigious state universities have been going exactly this higher executive pay route — with alarmingly miserable results.

The new IPS paper, The One Percent at State U: How University Presidents Profit from Rising Student Debt and Low-Wage Faculty Labor, crunches pay figures at the 25 public institutions of higher education with the highest-paid chiefs. From 2009 to 2012, average pay for these execs jumped from $727,000 to $974,000.

Over this three-year span, the pay gap between top executive compensation at the nation’s 25 highest-paying public universities and the national average public university nearly doubled, jumping from $251,036 to $429,452.

What could the trustees at these 25 universities possibly have been thinking? How could they have boosted presidential pay a quarter-million dollars per president at a time America was still struggling to recover from the Great Recession?

All these trustees were likely just following America’s conventional boardroom wisdom. And why not? Many trustees at top universities serve in their day jobs as top execs at America’s largest corporations. These execs have internalized — and personally profited off — Corporate America’s basic boardroom logic.

Want to get your enterprise to “perform” at a higher level? Our boardroom logic dictates that you give your CEOs ever greater financial “incentive” to perform.

In American higher education, notes the new Institute for Policy Studies One Percent at State U report, this boardroom “wisdom” is clearly backfiring.

At the 25 public universities with the highest executive pay, study authors Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood show, the prime problems that ail higher education are getting significantly worse, not better.

At these 25 institutions, student debt levels are rising much faster than national averages, as are the ranks of contingent and part-time faculty.

Erwin and Wood provide detailed chapter and verse for their charges.

At Ohio State, for instance, the university president pocketed $5.9 million from the 2010 through 2012 fiscal years. Over that span, Ohio State student debt rose 23 percent faster than the national average, and the university hired 11 times more contingent and part-time faculty than permanent full-timers.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, permanent faculty ranks dropped 19 percent over the same span, with the number of part-timers leaping 239 percent.

Also leaping: pay for the University of Washington president. This top exec pulled in $2.3 million for the three years. UW students, by contrast, saw their debt grow 26 percent faster than the national average for four-year public universities.

We’ve essentially witnessed, Erwin and Wood document, a “top-heavy 1 percent” recovery at major state universities over recent years, “largely at the expense of students and faculty.”

The two study co-authors offer a variety of reforms for wringing pay excess out of higher education. State lawmakers, they urge, should set statutory pay ratios that limit top university executive compensation to 10 times the full-time equivalent pay of their institution’s lowest-paid faculty member.

Congress, Erwin and Wood add, should pass Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s pending Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, legislation that would nearly halve student loan interest rate payments and pay for this added student financial aid by hiking the tax rate on annual income over $1 million to a minimum 30 percent.

Instead of narrowing inequality in America, Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler pointed out earlier this year in a particularly astute analysis, “our system of higher education reinforces it.”

High pay for higher education’s highest executive officers only serves to help lock that inequality in. That lock needs busting.


Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies online weekly on excess and inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class (Seven Stories Press).

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