Friday, August 08, 2008

Administrative Salaries

This should be fun...

In light of Wednesday's post, an alert reader sent me a link to this article from Academe, which is published by the AAUP. It's a faculty-driven attack on high administrative salaries, drawing particular attention to some particularly obtuse Presidents.

At the risk of being drummed out of the administrative guild, I have to admit that it's about 90 percent right. Ostentatious compensation packages are abuses of any nonprofit. They're especially offensive when combined with pitiful raises for the rank and file.

That said, the figures thrown around in this article bear no relationship at all to my daily world. There isn't a dean at my college who makes six figures; they range from about 75k to just over 90k. In other words, they make about what most senior professors make. The President here makes far less than the deans listed in the article do. A quick glance at the Chronicle salary survey suggests that my cc isn't unusual; eye-popping administrative salaries are rare in the community college sector. There may be a chancellor of a statewide system somewhere who's raking it in, but that's pretty much the level you'd have to hit to find anything in a league with what the article notes.

And that's part of what I like about the community college sector.

Community colleges keep costs down in any number of ways. For the most part, cc's don't have high-profile athletics, or opulent student centers, or so many of the trappings of the 'arms race' that four-year college Presidents talk about when they talk about tuition increases. The ones I've seen have instead poured what little money they do have into the classroom or laboratory. (The reason we're still strapped, despite such frugality, is a combination of lower tuition and lower per-capita public aid than the other sectors receive. If we achieved aid parity, we'd be in very, very good shape.)

Frustratingly, part of the reason we get less public financial support than other sectors is our lower prestige. The history of American transfer payment programs suggests that transfers to the poor will usually be much more vulnerable politically than transfers to the upper-middle class; that's why welfare as we knew it ended, but the mortgage interest deduction is considered holy writ. (Alternately, compare the relative fates of 'national health insurance' and 'federal deposit insurance.') Since cc's are identified in the public mind with 'losers,' we don't have the appeal of the Flagship Universities, which combine exclusivity and football in a way we just can't.

The way to fight that inherent disadvantage is to show over and over again that we're good stewards of what resources we do receive. Show the student success stories, the positive community impact of grads who stay in the area, and the clear focus on a clear mission. These are slow and boring, and they achieve their impact over time, but they're effective in their own ways. But that only works if they aren't counteracted by a single blowhard in a President's suite raking in indecent sums. A single ill-chosen bit of conspicuous consumption can undo years of patient goodwill-building.

(Where I take issue with the article is in its denigration of search firms. The traditional system of administrative hiring, which the article glosses over, is the old boys' network. Bringing some procedural regularity to searches strikes me as a good idea, rather than as a sign of corruption. And expanding searches beyond the people already on campus can be an effective way to bring new perspectives, different experiences, and people without local baggage. Beware appeals to the Golden Age.)

Yes, good administrators should be paid well enough to stick with the job through the headaches. (I've noticed that some of the same people who complain about high salaries also complain about high turnover, without noticing the contradiction.) But you don't go into higher ed – particularly community colleges – to get rich. The best administrators aren't in it for the trappings or the power; in this setting, power comes from trust, which is lost anyway the minute people decide you're in it for the money. Professors are routinely cast as idealistic, but the best administrators are, too. The point of doing this job is to make the colleges worthy of their students. Ostentatious salaries are perversions of the mission, and betrayals of public trust. Have at them.