An outrageous pay hike for UNC administrators

John Fennebresque and the UNC Board of Governors gave top administrators a big pay raise.
John Fennebresque and the UNC Board of Governors gave top administrators a big pay raise. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Another steep cut in state education budgets? These days, little could surprise North Carolinians less. However, something unexpected recently happened: The UNC Board of Governors – whose 32 members were all appointed by the Republican legislature – contemplated a rare spending spree: They voted to allow generous pay raises for top university administrators.

The UNC president and chancellors could increase the compensation ranges for “vice presidents, vice chancellors, deans and other administrators.” Using a new model recommended to the Board of Governors by a consulting firm, the pay range for a vice president for research and graduate education, for instance, would be between $242,829 and $388,526.

If your gut tells you this sounds excessive, you’re right. It is.

In this era of relentless state disinvestment from public education, such administrative pay raises will inevitably be financed by North Carolinians’ tuition dollars. Moreover, pay hikes for administrators exacerbate one of the most outrageous and unnecessary trends in contemporary higher education.

A decision to boost the salaries of those who are already among the UNC system’s best-paid employees would come as the state is funding public universities less and asking North Carolinian families to pay more. A report released in May by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities shows that between 2008 and 2015, per-student funding for higher education in North Carolina declined 23.4 percent. According to the same report, tuition at North Carolina’s public universities shot up over the same period by 35.8 percent.

Meanwhile, faculty salaries over the past seven years have remained stagnant, rising a paltry estimated 2.5 percent. At the same time, UNC institutions, like universities across the country, are increasingly confining teaching to contingent faculty, who are paid a fraction of what tenure-track colleagues earn. A recent report at Appalachian State University showed the number of student credit hours generated by contingent faculty has risen from 35 percent in 2006 to 43 percent.

An alarming trend

While the state is busy slashing university funding and passing the costs on to North Carolinians, it wants to pad the salaries of high-flying administrators. This hardly seems like a good faith effort to comply with North Carolina’s constitutional stipulation that “the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education … be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

In approving this administrative pay raise, the Board of Governors is slavishly following an alarming national trend. According to a study of federal figures by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of non-academic administrative positions at American universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years. True, some of these jobs are needed to ensure compliance with federal regulations. But overall, administrative growth is the result of the corporatization of higher education, which requires managers who can lure student “consumers,” “market” their “brand,” license intellectual property and raise money. Administrative bloat is part and parcel of the gradual eclipse of the public university as an institution serving the common good.

Runaway salaries for top university administrators and presidents are as problematic as lavish compensation for CEOs. The issue is not simply, as defenders will contend, that the “market” dictates such largesse. Rather, the problem is that the administrators who occupy the commanding heights of our universities engage in what economist Thomas Piketty calls “rent-seeking”: They use their positions of authority and wealth to enhance their authority and wealth.

It is far from clear that their priorities, steeped in the worst vices of the market mentality, will address the needs of ordinary Americans who seek what public universities have traditionally promised: meaningful employment, a sense of democratic citizenship and a rich intellectual life.

UNC students and their families need to make it clear that the Board of Governors’ priorities are not their own.

Michael C. Behrent is an associate professor at Appalachian State University and president of the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. John Steen is program coordinator of Scholars for North Carolina’s Future. Jim Carmichael, a professor at UNC Greensboro and president of the North Carolina Conference of the AAUP, also contributed.