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A scam, not a marketplace

Quite the con some categories of professionals have going these days: Pay anything less than obscene amounts of money to attract “top talent,” or your institution will crash to the ground. CEOs of corporations. Coaches of football teams. Presidents of universities.

Washington State UniversityFrom Peter Callaghan’s column in today’s Tacoma News Tribune:

But last week WSU echoed the words that UW leaders had voiced just 18 months ago. If Cougar Nation wants a world-class leader, it will have to pay well above the half-million-dollar pay package [retiring President V. Lane] Rawlins will leave behind.

“I think that’s the market for the type of president we’ll be looking for, and the top presidents in the country,” WSU regent Rafael Stone told The Spokesman-Review in Spokane.
It’s an unquestioned truth in the boardrooms of the nation’s biggest universities that it is not only OK to pay presidents up to 10 times what they’d pay a full professor, it is necessary. It is not only OK to coax the presidents of other schools to leave their jobs, it is the first rule of how the game is played. It is not only OK to provide your president with pay and benefits packages in the half-million to million-dollar range, it is the only way to keep him or her from being raided by other schools.

The language resembles nothing so much as the obscene “market” for college coaches, where a contract is good only until a better one comes along.

What makes more sense? Pay a president something like 100K – providing a little more assurance that your winning candidate will be applying to do a job at a university, not simply to enrich himself.

A couple of truths that should be apparently to anyone as presumably well-educated as a member of a university governing board should be:

1. The choice of top executive at any institution – with the exception of the founder – is only one factor in its success or failure, and ararely decisive. Pick a good one, sure: But perfectly good talent usually can be found locally, often inside the institution. (Hey: There’s a good way to build some real institutional loyalty.) But nationwide searches and big bucks salaries also make no sense for another reason.

2. You never, never, know what they’re going to be like until they start work, track record and earnest sentiments be damned. We think we put presidents of the United States through a vetting process, but the George W. Bush who in 2000 pledged to reduce the size and scope of government and avoid nation-building certainly isn’t what we got after he entered the White House. Look around the country and you will see universities headed by high-priced presidents, picked after extensive national searches. And you will find that some of them are good, some are fair, and some are bad. If you filled the jobs by lottery, you likely wouldn’t do a lot worse: Most job categories, including those filled on impulse, are occupied by job holders who are variously good, fair and poor.

More locally, Callaghan points out that while University of Washington President Mark Emmert pulls in $602,000 a year, ranking him eighth nationally for highest university president salary, most institutions comparable to UW or WSU pay considerably less.

It’s enough to justify some student protests: How about spending some of those big buck on our education, not the enrichment of one guy in one office?

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