UK trustees must reset priorities

At issue | Sept. 15 Herald-Leader article, "UK trustees approve increase in Lee Todd's salary for two years"

Something is very wrong with higher-education governance and has been wrong for a long time.

The persistent decline in undergraduate quality and the steady increase in cost per student are proof that governing boards are derelict in their duties.

The University of Kentucky's governing board provides us with a recent case in point.

The rate of increase in college costs routinely exceeds increases in health care costs. Over the last three decades, the real financial burden imposed on students, parents and taxpayers grew steadily, resulting in the worst cost-control record in the economy. Chronic cost increases and declining quality are simply unsustainable; we are in a higher-education "bubble," just like the housing bubble and the dotcom bubble. When it bursts, it will be devastating.

The Goldwater Institute released a report in August entitled, "Administrative bloat at American universities: The real reason for high costs in higher education." The institute analyzed 198 of the top research universities; UK was one of those universities.

From 1993 to 2007, enrollments grew by nearly 15 percent among the 198 universities. The number of full-time administrators per 100 students grew by 39 percent, while the number of full-time faculty per 100 students grew by 18 percent.

The cost of administration per student grew by 61 percent and the cost of instruction per student increased by 39 percent. These results are confirmed by other studies that suggest administrative bloat accounts for two-thirds of real cost increases.

University overhead cost per student should decline as enrollment grows due to returns to scale and improvements in technology, instead, they are the fastest-growing component of total cost.

University governing boards contain prominent business people who scrupulously control overhead costs in their own businesses. Why have these people not raised questions about this explosive growth in overhead? Do they not have a responsibility to the public to explain why they let this happen?

In a tone-deaf moment, the UK governing board, on the occasion of President Lee T. Todd Jr.'s retirement, decided to increase his total compensation for his last year to $825,000.

A firestorm of anger and outrage has been burning over excessive executive compensation for the last two years, and here is the UK board shoveling Kentucky coal on to the fire. Further, can it be true that board members have not read nor heard about the Goldwater Institute's report? If not, why are they serving on UK's board?

The Herald-Leader quotes trustees who say they cannot hire a new president unless they significantly increase compensation. Interim board chairman Billy Joe Miles said the president's job is more important than the governor's job (apparently not more important than the basketball coach's, however).

Since this new compensation is about double what the U.S. president makes, it means being UK president is more important than being president of the United States.

So, what's wrong with UK's president making big bucks?

UK's faculty and staff have not had a raise in three years and, according to the board, their new president is going to be very handsomely paid. How will that president have any credibility on campus when it comes time to do something about cost and quality? If you were a faculty or staff member, would you be willing to make sacrifices for leaders like that?

Does UK really need to be led by someone whose primary motivation is money?

Being a university president is a public service. It is not the same as being CEO of a hedge fund.

UK needs someone who knows that the job is public service, and that the president will have to share sacrifices and cannot lead without credibility.

Higher education should get back to core academic values. Governing boards should be populated by people who know something about higher education and who actually care that it has cost and quality problems.