Merlene Davis: I wish I understood big money, especially UK's

Former University of Kentucky President Dr. Lee Todd
Former University of Kentucky President Dr. Lee Todd

Soon, I expect to receive a call from a University of Kentucky student asking me to donate to a scholarship fund so that a worthy but financially strapped student can attend UK. It happens every year.

Sometimes I have the discretionary funds to give and sometimes paying tuition for my children or managing through salary cuts have my wallet turned inside out, so I can't give. I can't give those students what I think they are due. That bothers me.

It doesn't bother me half as much, though, as watching the UK Board of Trustees "restructure" President Lee T. Todd Jr.'s salary so he can earn not only a big increase this year, his last as president, but also for last year, time long gone by.

The board approved adding more than $157,000 to the salary of the soon-to-be-retiring Todd this year and last year because the board wanted to set a salary that would be attractive to applicants who are qualified to lead UK in the future.

I don't doubt Todd is worthy. What I do doubt, however, is the wisdom of increasing his pay when the university is, like most other entities, in a budget crunch.

Todd, like other state university and college presidents, went hat-in-hand to the legislature earlier this year hoping to convince lawmakers to maintain or increase the school's level of state funding. There was gnashing of teeth and rending of garments at the mere thought of a funding cut.

And now, some seven months later, the UK board found money somewhere, somehow to give a retiring employee a near 52 percent raise and to make it retroactive to the previous school year.

How is that any different than the way bailout money was handed out in bonuses?

Back in February, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, complained about Michael B. McCall, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, asking for more state funding when McCall's compensation package is some $600,000 a year for overseeing 16 colleges on 68 campuses across the state.

Stumbo called McCall's plea for more money to help with tuition hypocritical.

"It's a little bit offensive to me that some of these folks have outrageous salaries, they support intolerable tuition increases, and they cry when the legislature asks for some charity with this recession pain that we're all going through," Stumbo said back then.

And that is the crux of the problem.

The country is still in a recession, and, supposedly, even UK has been affected.

Last year the board eliminated 81 positions because of the financial shortfall. Twelve workers lost their jobs, while 40 staff positions and 29 available faculty positions were left unfilled.

Todd said earlier this year the student-faculty ratio at UK was 18-1. The goal, he said, was 15-1, which would be in line with a Top 20 university. That would require, he said, an additional 125 faculty members.

Could that money have at least hired a few of those faculty members?

Many of the students who attend UK come from families who have been pinched, if not choked, by financial shortfalls.

When the university and college presidents were begging for legislative favor, I could identify with them. They were trying to advocate for regular folks like me so that tuition could be held to a workable amount for families.

Faculty trustee Joe Peek, whose dissenting vote was one of only two cast against Todd's pay increase, talked to me Wednesday about how the university makes decisions about the money it spends.

"If you spend on one thing, the money is not there to spend on something else," Peek said. "The university is making choices all the time."

Some members of faculty have gone three years without a raise, Peek said, and the only increase students have received have come in higher tuition costs.

"We're not surprised," Peek said. "And that is a sad statement."

Couldn't this pay increase, this upgrade, this restructuring wait until the new person is hired?

Give the new hire a nice starting salary and save that cash that will flow out of university coffers before a new president signs a contract.

Obviously I'm putting too much emphasis on the public trust, on watching a board of directors being more mindful of whose money it is spending.

Comedian Steve Harvey once spoke of people like me, people who don't understand big money, when he was trying to explain why Michael Jackson seemed different from other people.

Harvey said Jackson had "giraffe money," meaning Jackson could afford to buy two giraffes when the rest of us wouldn't know where to go to acquire just one or where to put it.

The UK trustees are operating with "giraffe money" when the students they are supposed to serve can only afford a dog on a leash.

Maybe that is why this move to me is hypocritical and woefully out of touch.