Rethink salaries for college chiefs; reward them for meeting goals

On the one hand, it's all too easy to understand why the Eastern Kentucky University Board of Regents offered such a generous compensation package to its new president. In the end it boils down to this: Everybody's doing it.

Michael T. Benson, when he arrives at EKU August 1 from Southern Utah University, will have a base salary of $400,000 a year, an additional $48,000 for housing, $25,000 for discretionary spending (sounds like wooing big donors but it's not spelled out); a car for which EKU will pay all expenses; free tuition for his children at EKU's Model Laboratory School; and the possibility of another $120,000 in bonus payments.

That seems a bit rich when you compare it to the $423,588 Western's Gary Ransdell earns on a 21,000 student campus, or the $268,000 Wayne Andrews is paid at Morehead, a school of 11,000 students. EKU has 15,000 students. Benson is making $281,000 a year overseeing the 8,000 student Southern Utah University.

Still, Benson's package is not terribly out of line with the salaries of the rest of the public university presidents in Kentucky, most of which have risen dramatically in the last few years.

Now to the other hand.

You have to ask what the boards of these universities are thinking handing out such rich rewards with very little accountability at a time when tuition is rising and compensation for other workers is largely stagnant.

Last month, EKU announced a 2.95 percent tuition increase, a 5 percent hike in dorm fees and that there will be no across-the-board salary increases for faculty and staff.

Bad news on tuition and salaries is always accompanied by grave remarks about economic realities, flagging state support, etc., etc.

But that grim, facts-only world vanishes like an early morning mist when presidential compensation is the topic. Vague comments about attracting the best and market forces gloss over the big numbers. In some blur of transformative hope, boards dole out compensation that's triple or more that of the highest-paid academics on campus.

The bonuses typically are based more on perception than metrics. Some examples from the evaluation questionnaire for a UK president: "has demonstrated the multiple skills necessary for leading ... the next five years," "has established credibility with constituencies important to the University," and "priorities are the right ones for UK today."

Sounds more like a popularity contest than a serious evaulation of accomplishments.

Presidents' salaries won't make or break a university with hundreds of buildings, thousands of employees and even more students. But they are very important symbolically, and boards need to think long and hard about the justification for them and how they're structured.

It might be a good start to lower base salaries and emphasize bonuses based on metrics that align with the university's needs and goals. That could include money raised, retention and graduation rates, student progress and satisfaction, faculty and staff achievement and satisfaction, diversity, cost controls, alumni engagement.

A predictable objection to this proposal is that it will make it hard to attract good people.

Are boards really afraid excellent candidates won't apply for a job where the product of their hard work, like that of the students, is measured, quantified and rewarded?