Sunday, May 15, 2011

NO CLASS: Overpaid university presidents show contempt for students

"Summon the limousine forthwith, Reginald."

    According to the Chronicle of Higher Education's annual report on university presidents' compensation, released Monday, the top ten earned between $819,000 and $2.5 million  in 2012.
    I guess this makes them feel very good about themselves. It puts them well into the ranks of  The Top One Percent, along with all the other Masters of the Universe. Way to go! Rake it in! Cover your bed in it and roll around, if you must. High six-figure salaries continue to be the norm in American higher education, despite huge cuts in state funding. The median salary among public college presidents is well over the cutoff point for joining the Top One Percent. I wonder how they feel about the "little people" below.
    Seriously: How can they be so clueless? Why do they think they need or deserve all that money, when hundreds of thousands of young people are priced out of higher education by 10 percent annual increases in tuition, and student loan debt soaring to a trillion dollars?
    What kind of message does the callous, casual greed of their elders send to our children? Where is the compassion? Where is the sense of equity and proportion? Where is the call of duty?

Don't you miss the modest, lovely campuses of yesteryear?
     I know where the outrage is. It's right here.
     It's not just the university presidents who are going for the financial jugular. Tens of thousands of professors earn between $500,000 and well over a million dollars a year as public employees, on top of what their research grants and other private endeavors bring in, although it must be said that many earn barely a middle-class income, and increasing numbers have for years been kept in "adjunct" status, depriving them of benefits and tenure.
    (UPDATE: Top universities offer presidents and executive staff interest-free {and often forgivable) loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- up to well over a million -- for homes, and for summer homes. They're fabulous. They're huge. They "don't pass the red-face test," even for a president who advocates salaries "as high as the market will bear."
    Despite the ever soaring billions of dollars that are spent on "higher education,"  a special report by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace published in March 2012 found that about half of 704 surveyed employers said they had trouble finding recent college graduates qualified to work for them, according to the New York Times.
     The graduates are appallingly deficient in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving, the report said. Also lacking were  collaborative abilities,flexibility, professionalism, interpersonal skills and the ability to deal with ambiguity (
    Universities are not turning young people into adults who can function in the world of work. They are failing even to acknowledge the problem, continuing to take the old, easy way out, pedagogically speaking, and focusing their major energies on erecting ravishing new buildings and enshrining sports as "the glue that hold us together."
    But at least university presidents are having lavish lives worthy of a reality show.
    When did they  decide to become celebrities, complete with private jets, platinum parachutes, personal chefs in their grand old mansions, and make-believe "jobs" (with a clothing allowance) for their wives?
    For years, the rationale for the presidents' monster salaries has been that they are irresistibly charismatic fund-raisers. So what? Our country has plenty of brilliant fund-raisers, and some of them realize that the funds aren't for THEM. The tiresome game of musical-chairs presidencies and bidding-war compensation packages has got to stop. They are playing us for fools, and having a blast doing it. It's their sport of choice: leaping with muscled thighs from one institution to another, getting a big fat raise each time. They're on a circuit, waving at each other as they dash through airports. They have a special bond, like Masons.
    And what is all that fund-raising intended to accomplish? It's not being used on something as banal as assisting students. Much of it goes into grandiose infrastructure, and the monument builders get pretty carried away with the atriums, indoor waterfalls and glassed-in pedestrian walkways.  According to the New York Times, Dec. 13, 2012: "A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill. Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody's." 
    During this period, college presidents and their Cabinets awarded themselves increases in salaries, benefits and deferred compensation that ranged from seven percent a year to 42 percent a year. That doesn't include the 55 percent increase that was granted last year to University of Florida president Bernie Machen, who had been pouting day and night about his $540,000 salary. He was making less than the 50th highest paid president among the nation's public universities. No way! So now, he's back up there in the top ten, where he has no doubt he belongs.
    And then of course there are the bloated endowments -- millions and in some case billions of dollars -- that sit there getting fatter, doing nothing except burnishing the macho allure of the institution's magical leader and his smug coterie. Way down there, looking like ants from the presidents' lofty suites, are the impoverished students.
     “The endowment has become a symbol of status and prestige, similar to the university’s libraries, art museums, and architecture,” Professor Peter Conti-Brown wrote in the 2009 Stanford Law Review.  
     Indeed, a number of state legislatures, as well as Congress, have considered requiring greater payouts by university endowments, which have repeatedly been accused of “hoarding“ their wealth.
    Somewhere, buried under all that lucre and avarice, the soaring edifices and gaping stadiums, the massive administrative apparatus and the notorious in-fighting over the spoils, there is the forgotten transaction, the noblest of endeavors: the simple but profound gift of wisdom from a teacher to a student.
    Please do not bring up the whole "student" thing! It is so damned distracting to the Brave New Breed of corporate-minded university presidents!   
     Why don't those greedy, pompous fools slash their own salaries to a sensible, middle-class level -- the level that most of their students' parents make, like $75,000 or so -- and set in motion a revolution out of our "top one percent" society? Wouldn't integrity be more enjoyable than another Lexus or cashmere bathrobe? Wouldn't the respect and affection of students be worth more than a ski-resort chalet?
    Isn't the university the ideal place for a new commitment to economic justice to begin? In its current practices, the university aggressively perpetuates our society's growing disparities. It can't go on like this. It will end, one way or another. I'm starting to feel nostalgic about guillotines.
    Remember when university presidents led their particular institutions for decades, with a courtliness and a deep love for the life of the mind? Remember when they were actually scholars -- embodying our highest values -- instead of testosterone-engorged empire-builders? 
    Don't these puffed-up people, who ought to be among the most enlightened and morally centered in our society, perceive the disconnect between who they should be and who they are? Are they not introspective or self-aware enough to find another measure of self-esteem than MONEY? And don't they realize that this isn't about their self-esteem, anyway?
    It's the students, stupid.
    It's not about you. Or the "state-of-the-art" skyscrapers designed by "world-class architects." It's not about getting the best football coach that money can buy. It's not about bribing Nobel laureates to park their butts in one of your fabulous laboratories -- not to teach, of course, but to bring that ineffable glow of international fame to the campus. It's not about "branding," which universities are paying thousands of former advertising superstars hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. They might very well recycle old product slogans from their Madison Avenue heyday's, such as Coke's 2011 come-on: “Life Begins Here.” 
    It has just the right flavor and zest, doesn’t it?
    But we digress: It's the students, stupid!
    In my July 2011 post, "The Boys Club: How Men Ruin Everything" (, I quoted a departing member of a Board of Regents as saying, "The campus has become a major economic engine, and is more like a big business than a university."
    That is just plain sad. And the profiteers are just plain sickening.
    It's sickening as well for those who yearn to be real teachers.  Author and professor Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia loves to teach, but he hates the conditions under which much teaching takes place today, even at an elite university like his, according to the August 21, 2013 issue of the New York Times.  "These conditions — the consumer mentality of students and their families, the efforts of administrators to provide a full spa experience and the rush of faculty to escape from the classroom into esoteric research — make real teachers an endangered species in the academic ecosystem," the article says.
    According to Edmundson's book, "Why Teach?," inspiration is in short supply these days on campus. "In the book’s first section, Mr. Edmundson describes the growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge," the Times says.