Kentucky is part of an epidemic of Wall Street-itis that has infected higher education with obscene executive pay syndrome.
This condition strikes when governing boards are so enamored of their chief executives they lose sight of the big picture. They start to act like corporate directors instead of guardians of a public trust and may forget their mission is to support the best teaching at a price that's affordable for students.
Widespread exposure carries a risk for universities and colleges: The average taxpayer or lawmaker — someone, for example, looking at this week's report on presidential salaries by the Legislative Research Commission — might reasonably conclude that if Kentucky's universities can afford such lavish pay at the top, they can do without more support from the state.
Instead of bolstering public support for higher education, board members begin to believe the true competitive measure of their institutions is presidential pay. (The carriers of this disease include executive search firms who also persuade boards they can only hire a president in secret.)
As in corporate America, it's often hard to discern any connection between performance and the upward spiral in CEO pay.
In Kentucky, the LRC found pay for presidents far outpaced faculty wages, and the report understates the growth in presidential salaries because it covers a four-year span ending in 2010.
Since then the University of Kentucky president's base salary has increased by almost $200,000 to $500,000 — a 74 percent increase since 2006.
(UK's new president Eli Capilouto had been earning $371,664 as provost of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.)
Also, the University of Louisville board nearly doubled President James Ramsey's pay last year to $600,000.
Remember these are base salaries and do not include other benefits that fatten presidential compensation.
From 2006 to 2010, faculty pay statewide went up 7.7 percent while presidential raises ranged from 5 percent to 34 percent.
Kentucky's community college presidents received average raises of nearly 12 percent while the average community college professor's raise was 6 percent.
Meanwhile, thousands of Kentuckians lost their jobs or took pay cuts to stay employed, while universities and community colleges lost $105 million in state funding, with another cut of $62 million possibly on the way.
Low-cost, public universities, whose presidents were public servants, helped build a strong middle class. The rise of economic inequality has coincided with the corporatization of higher education. Both trends move us away from what made the U.S. a global role model.
Maybe education leaders just want the presidents to make more than the coaches. Still, leaders who take their trust seriously would push for a course change.