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Monday, May 11, 2020

Will COVID-19 Dethrone the Kings and Queens of Academia?

     A recent survey by ABC Insights, an organization committed to reducing the cost of higher education, found that due to the coronavirus pandemic, 83 percent of colleges and universities are considering hiring freezes. More than half the schools report plans to furlough professors and to lay off staff. Schools are also thinking about reducing employment benefits and reducing other expenditures such as athletic programs in an effort to balance their budgets. Some college and universities might have to merge with other schools, some may close altogether. It appears that the good times are over in American academia, and the overspending that has been going on for decades might come to an end. However, it remains to be seen if the outrageous salaries and benefit packages given to college and university presidents and chancellors will come to an end as well.

     On average, presidents of private and public institutions of higher learning make, in annual salaries, benefits, and perks, more than $450,000 a year. Even the heads of small, private liberal arts colleges make five or six times more than the highest paid professors in their institutions.

     Presidents of at least twenty public universities earn well over $1 million a year. For example, the president of Ohio State University pulls in $2 million a year in benefits and salary. Graham Spanier, before he was fired as president of Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal, took in $3 million a year. Spanier "earned" $600,000 a year as a tenured professor even though he didn't teach. $1.2 million of Spanier's compensation was deferred, presumably for tax purposes. He received $700,000 for a one-year sabbatical. (Why would a college president need a sabbatical?) Graham Spanier was later sent to prison in connection with the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.)

     At a time when higher education costs were rising along with student debt (at $1 trillion), these ridiculously excessive compensation packages amounted to white-collar crime against students, parents, and taxpayers. A college or university president shouldn't be paid much more than a full professor. And why do these administrators need free housing? How did the compensation of these kings and queens of academia get so far out of whack?

     For a good example of how overpaid and over-valued university presidents had become, one didn't have to look beyond Janet Napolitano. After bungling the job of Homeland Security Director, Napolitano was chosen (out of 300 candidates) to head the University of California's 13-campus system. Napolitano received a relatively modest annual salary of $570,000. In addition to $8,916 a year in car expenses (you'd think she could afford her own car), she was paid $142,500 to cover her "relocation" expenses. (Most people would be happy to just have their new employers pick up their U-Haul bills.) Napolitano was also given, of course, free housing.

     Eventually, the 55-year-old chancellor took up residence in the Blake Mansion, a 3,500-square foot monstrosity built in the 1920s for movie stars like Fatty Arbuckle. Located in a community called Kensington four miles north of the University of California at Berkeley, the estate had been vacant since 2008. As a result, Blake Mansion was in a state of disrepair.

     The chancellor's home was rehabilitated at a cost of $6 million. The renovation project took three years. During this period, the state paid $10,000 a month to rent a suitable palace for the newly crowned academic queen.

     It's hard to image the residents of bankrupt California sleeping well in the knowledge that Ms. Napolitano was living like royalty. University of California students, realizing how Queen Napolitano's reign would significantly improve the quality of their educations, must have been jumping for joy.

     It is very possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will put tens of thousands of professors, coaches, and college administrators out of work. Many of them will probably never find new jobs in academia. Some, like Sociology, English, Philosophy, Psychology, and History professors, may have a hard time finding any work at all. And what will happen to all those people who taught in black, women, gay and film studies programs?

     It remains to be seen if college and university boards of trustees will wise up and simply pay their presidents and chancellors what they are truly worth. Will COVID-19 dethrone these kings and queens of academia?

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