Monday, November 19, 2007

Presidents on Allowances

The Chronicle has had a series over the last week or so about the salaries of college Presidents.

I won't do the predictable “how can some much make so much when others make so little” lament, on the grounds that even the highest-paid Presidents in the country don't make as much as a typical major league backup catcher. Given the bonuses that folks in the financial services and HMO sectors have been making, I won't get all worked up about some college President making $250,000. (The one at my cc makes a good deal less than that.) It's a difficult job, very few people can do it well, and it's all-consuming. And the total amount spent, if it were redistributed throughout the college, would amount to spitting in the ocean. These folks are well-paid, but – with exceptions -- not scandalously so.

That said, though, I don't understand why “allowances” are so common.

The article mentions, and I've seen this in my home state, a common practice of breaking Presidents' compensation into salary, a “housing allowance,” a “car allowance” (or just a car), and so forth. This just strikes me as asking for trouble.

Probably once a year, some big muckety-muck gets written up in the papers for using a college car for personal use. It sounds awful, but if you think about it, it makes sense. I do errands on the way to and from work all the time. It saves time and gas. It's not scandalous when I do it, since I pay for my own car from my salary. I can mix work commuting, errands, trips, and whatever else, and nobody can say boo about it. If I happen to stop for milk on the way home, which happens from time to time, I don't have to justify it to an auditor.

But get a company car, or a car allowance, and suddenly any 'mixed use' is up for scrutiny. But the only way to avoid mixed use would be to go home before running any errands. Who does that? What, exactly, does that achieve? Alternately, you could keep a gazillion receipts, and pay highly-trained professionals to sort through them, to make sure that every milk run is duly deducted. No inefficiencies there!

Housing is even worse. The theory, I think, is that Presidents are supposed to host events in their homes, so the homes are mixed-use. Therefore, the college pays for some fraction of the home – in some places, all of it – to compensate the President for the wear and tear of hosting.

Role confusion here is chronic. The worst recent case was that President in California who had a dog run installed in the backyard, at considerable expense to her university. That actually occasioned a public scandal, and gave her political critics all manner of ammunition.

Had she paid for her own house out of her own salary, the dog run wouldn't have mattered.

I guess the argument for 'allowances' is that they prevent unscrupulous Boards of Trustees from riding roughshod over a beleaguered President's home. But Presidents are pretty well paid these days, and good ones have as much leverage over a Board as they other way around. So, my modest proposal for both Presidents and Boards of Trustees:

Kill allowances. Spell out expectations for hosting and/or travel in the Presidential contract, and bump up the salaries to pay the rough equivalent of what the allowances would have covered. Then treat the Presidents' personal consumption just like everybody else's. If a given President wants to cheap out on her car to blow her money on a dog run instead, I say, who cares? I don't want my tax money going to pay accountants to figure out how many tenths of miles to deduct for stops at 7-11's on the way home. Better to give the President an ample salary, and let her figure out when and how to run errands. The money saved in verifying paperwork would be significant, we could stop fighting truly idiotic public battles over how people live their daily lives, and Presidents would have the same basic freedoms of movement and choice as everybody else. Let them focus on work, rather than on keeping receipts for every last tenth of a mile.

The same works for housing. Spell out the hosting expectations in the contract, and bargain a salary that makes it worthwhile. Then let the President find her own house. If she wants to paint the place purple and decorate it with the skulls of her enemies, whatever. (This might also have to salutary benefit of acquainting Boards with the realities of local housing prices. Faculty unions might eventually reap the benefits of that.) If she fulfills the requirements and brings home the bacon, then who cares if she has odd taste?

The housing thing, I think, dates back to a deeply patriarchal 'first family' idea. Kill it. Host functions on campus, in art galleries, wherever. Let Presidents have home lives. And don't expect spouses to fulfill the old unpaid 'First Lady' role. If you want their services, hire them and pay them. Otherwise, assume that they have their own lives, and rightly so.

I don't make a habit of defending top dogs, but we need good ones, and some of these traditional expectations don't help. As with faculty and everybody else, treat Presidents as employees. Spell out what's expected, pay well, and don't micromanage their private lives. I could give two hoots whether my President picks up dry cleaning on the way home. I'd rather have that highly-paid brainpower put to use helping the college, rather than figuring out how not to violate the ground rules of the car allowance.