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Nancy Smith

Livin' Large in LaLaLand; or, the Quackery of Setting a University President's Salary

May 22, 2012 - 6:00pm

And you thought the let-em-eat-cake boys all work on Wall Street. Little did you know.

Have you taken a gander at the salary-plus of Florida's public-university presidents?

  • John C. Hitt, University of Central Florida, $741,500.
  • Judy Genshaft, University of South Florida, $592,400.
  • Mark B. Rosenberg, Florida International University, $561,875.
  • Eric J. Barron, Florida State University, $511,945.
  • Bernard J. Machen, University of Florida, $507,808.
  • James Ammons, Florida A&M University, $445,250.
  • Mary Jane Saunders, Florida Atlantic University, $381,161.
  • Judith A. Bense, University of West Florida, $277,436.

These presidents' 2010-11 compensation packages are on display for all to see in a special report just out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The report analyzes 199 chief executives at 190 public universities in the United States. The only reason the presidents of the other three Florida universities aren't shown is because they weren't chosen for inclusion in the Chronicle's study.

Every one of these and the three omitted presidents are our employees. They work for us, the taxpayers of Florida, at a combined income of more than $5 million.

The report looks at private universities, too, and sure enough, there was University of Miami President Donna Shalala at $1.16 million in 2010-2011. Her pay actually dipped 1 percent from the prior year, but who cares? UM could buy her a Rolls Royce and a mansion on Key Biscayne and nobody but the UM family is likely to raise a finger. Shalala isn't on the taxpayers' dime.

It's the public universities that raise eyebrows -- or should. Especially in Florida, where these same shocked and dismayed university presidents are crying poorhouse because the Legislature slashed $300 million last session and the governor limited tuition increases to 5 percent.

Said a fiscally prudent Gov. Rick Scott the morning he signed the state budget, "Some of these universities are wanting to raise tuition 15 percent a year. I mean, name a business. Can you raise your advertising rates 15?percent year after year? You cant. You wouldnt be in business. Your competition wouldnt let you.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Florida families struggle to send their kids to state universities. And the students themselves trade their future for loan after student loan.

It's the wrong time to see salaries of public-paid chief executives that eclipse the salaries of the president of the United States ($400,000) and the governor of Florida ($130,000 is approved, though Gov. Rick Scott has declined to collect it).

Nevertheless, the arrogance is astounding.

Stated the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Public outcry over presidential pay (at state universities), which has become a potent political target in these lean economic times, appears to have done little to affect what presidents earn at public research institutions.

At the same time, the median pay for a university professor is $139,500, up 2.2 percent from the prior year.

The world of public universities has always been a kind of closed society, where decisions -- while not exactly made in secret -- are perpetuated by an elite insider class that closely guards its authority. Peek behind the cloisters sometime. There are, per capita, more bums floating on clouds in a university administration than there are on Walt Disney World's Magic Carpet Ride.

These are not folks who are going to see presidents' salaries as a part of any real-world problem.

Add to the $5 million-plus in presidents' salaries a new compensation package. USF Polytechnic in Lakeland is breaking off into a separate university in the fall. It's a $39 million deal that better would have been vetoed. What kind of quackery, you have to ask yourself, will go into deciding how much salary the new president should draw? The successful candidate will preside over a university with zero students and a full STEM curriculum "to be announced."

This may be a good time to consider letting Sen. J.D. Alexander complete his legacy. The chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee from Lake Wales wanted a separate university in Lakeland, he wanted it now, he threw away the Senate rulebook to muscle it through. Perhaps he should get his heart's desire after all -- the presidency of the new school wags call "JD Poly" anyway -- in exchange for accepting no salary for the duration of his appointment.

But that's got to be the deal. No salary for wheeler-dealer JD.

I like that idea and I would be happy to present it formally. But would I be welcome inside academia's stone fortress?

Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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