Former University of Louisville President James Ramsey knew better.
An economist, he’d worked twice as state budget director, including when former Gov. Paul Patton pushed through Kentucky’s higher-education reforms.
Ramsey had to know that luxury salaries and perks for himself and his closest aides would signal to the university community and the General Assembly that personal bank accounts had taken priority over affordable, quality education.
But Ramsey, who resigned last month with a $690,000 buyout, took it one step further, awarding two top administrators contracts that guarantee their sweetheart deals continue after his departure.
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That will leave his successor to decide whether to try to work with Ramsey loyalists or waste millions paying them as well as a cabinet of his or her own choosing.
Thank goodness the General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee decided last month to study how pay packages and retirement benefits for Kentucky’s higher ed executives compare to those in other states.
The committee should also take a close look at the private foundations created ostensibly to support education but that often supplement executive pay or provide golden parachutes for departing leaders.
It was with the generous support of the U of L Foundation that Ramsey became one of the highest-paid public university presidents in the country. His U of L salary plus the enormous sweeteners added by the private foundation, of which he remains president, pushed his 2014 compensation to almost $1.7 million.
And Ramsey made sure his loyal aides were well-rewarded. Kate Howard, reporting for the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting, laid out the largesse in a story based on examination of the contracts of eight of Ramsey’s chief lieutenants.
The salaries start at $334,000 a year and head upward but also frequently include car allowances (up to $1,000 a month — nice, huh?), large bonuses, bringing spouses and children to meetings and athletic events on U of L’s dime, and deals to underwrite not only tuition for their children to attend U of L, but also room, board and other costs.
National experts Howard consulted said this is not the norm. It is also quite different from the practice at the University of Kentucky. There, among the top academic, non-medical administrators, only President Eli Capilouto has a contract. Neither Capilouto nor any of those who work in his office get a car allowance, and they don’t get bonuses. A new president at UK could choose a leadership team without worrying about millions still owed to Capilouto’s hires.
But neither of the recent chairs of the U of L board seemed bothered by the bloated deals there.
“You pay a lot of money for good talent. I didn’t think those perks were way out of line,” Bob Hughes, chairman until Gov. Matt Bevin dissolved the board in June, told Howard. “I don’t know if there’s even really a discussion to be had,” said Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, chairman of the board Bevin appointed that a court has enjoined from taking action, “… if it’s a legally binding contract, I’m sure (the university) will uphold their end.”
Members of the Kentucky General Assembly, however, are showing more interest.
KyCIR’s story this spring about a $348,000 retirement payment given to a retired president of Gateway Community & Technical College by the Gateway Foundation, without the knowledge of the school’s board of directors, raised the ire of legislators.
“While these folks come down here and complain to us about tough times and lack of funding, they’re lining their own pockets at the expense of the students,” Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said on the Senate floor. That led to the committee decision last month.
Public higher education in Kentucky deserves more support from taxpayers. University presidents and top staff have tough jobs with huge responsibilities and so should be appropriately compensated.
But the money grab Ramsey made for himself and his posse went way beyond appropriate. It’s a terrible shame but no surprise that those actions — and too many others like them — undercut support for higher education among legislators and taxpayers.