The Cost to Employ Presidents is Not Fundamental

With higher education in a cash crisis there is predictable interest in the total cost to employ California State University (and other) presidents.  The corporate caricature of CEO extravagance and employee sacrifice is now a looming reality for the entire civil enterprise.  While other labour is routinely exploited, the average base salary of a university president has climbed to over five times that of faculty.

Pause for a moment.  This intense, almost frantic concern with the cost of presidents is a stinky red herring.

Presidential Compensation is a Relative Concern
The NBC show, Community, recently introduced a character who changes his legal name to, Subway, in order to contract himself out as the embodiment of the “franchise collective humanity” at Greendale Community College.  While university presidents typically retain their given names, the position is a representative of the institution’s collective humanity, with universities and colleges operating as storefronts and the presidents their Colonel Sanders.

Now you might think the Colonel overpaid and in a cushy position, but try selling chicken without him…in this system, in these financial times.  By design the current model for higher education values the institution along side, if not over, the individual and charges the Colonel with integral function – like it or not.

The elevation of institutions to legitimate stakeholders imposes stricture on assessment of value in higher education.  In times of scarcity the legitimate interests of student, academic and institution are in regular conflict and assessment of value is a relative affair among these parties.

Consequently, the scope of discussion on presidential compensation is not fundamental.  In present circumstances the cost of the position is considered by some to be unacceptably high.  This does not challenge the existence of the position, but assumes it and offers internal assessment of value, with claims of relative systemic inequity.

By contrast, the frequently quipped, “What’s a president good for anyway?” is external, absolute challenge to an elemental position in the institutional model: a triad of university/college, government and union functionaries.  This sort of criticism challenges the value of the position itself and so by implication questions the value of the model itself.

If we do not need a president to produce higher education and research, then by extension perhaps we do not need the triad model and its institutions.

The call for reduction in presidential compensation does not negate institutional standing, but lends perspective to a position within the assumed model.  Removal of the president is not an option under such internal, relative analysis, only under fundamental criticism from without the triad model.

By my lights fundamental criticism is precisely the remedy for the systemic ills we suffer in higher education.  Instead, the prescription de jour is for internal scrutiny of a legitimate but isolated position of relative marginal expense.  Consequently, I believe the argument against presidential compensation is a red herring in the struggle to improve higher education.

Challenging Presidential Compensation is Inadequate Reform
There is no additional money to be squeezed, shamed or cajoled from the public purse, and similar tactics with institutional administration are bound to fail.  To suggest that the triad model and its institutions might be made more cost-efficient or equitable is a responsible, internally relative strategy.  But at the same time I believe the focus of reform resources on the cost to employ CSU presidents is ineffective and insufficient.

Supposing that each of the CSU presidents costs $1,000,000 to employ and that the associated labour of these integral positions of the institutional model was then offered pro bono, a system-wide gross surplus of $23 million would generate pay equity of $1150 per full time equivalent faculty per year.

But of course these are impossible circumstances, presenting their own inequities.  The point is rather that even in the fantastic, correcting presidential compensation by reducing it to zero remains an insufficient response to faculty labour issues, let alone other sources of serious exploitation and discrimination or fundamental service deficiencies in the institutional model.

This is nickels and dimes in a civil enterprise that demands billions annually and remains dangerously underfunded.  

There is only one way to effectively reduce the cost of providing higher education, and liberate the resources required for proper mitigation and correction throughout higher education.  We need an alternative model.  One that does not require the administration we currently find so (relatively) expensive and contentious.

This introduces discussion of fundamental design and value.  The question becomes: “Independently of the triad model, is a president or any of the current administration necessary for higher education and research?” or stated more generally, "Are universities and colleges required for higher education and research?"

If upon analysis the answer is, no, then the administration of a university or college becomes an eliminable public expense – (Vice) Presidents, (Associate) Deans, Directors, Managers, Supervisors, and more.

Wholesale elimination of administration – the quip of comment forums – would result in a cost reduction of around $190 million in salary alone for the CSU system.  This is nearly nine times the amount that would be saved were the presidential position made volunteer and provides $9444 in pay equity. 

Suppose further that most of the triad operations administered by this hypothetically expendable labour – such as Student Services, Institutional Support and Facilities Management – were eliminated by implication from the higher education mandate.  This would parse the institutional model to Academic Services and Administration directly related to the core education relationship formed between student and academic.  

It would also result in a cost reduction of $1.5 billion. This figure dwarfs the $23 million that might be saved were presidents taught a lesson in solidarity and sacrifice, and contributes nearly $75,000 in pay equity to faculty of the CSU system – doubling the national average income.

A potentially righteous cry for marginal cost reduction of a solitary position in a near defunct model is not adequate – not for this essential civil enterprise.  There must be fundamental response from without, by way of a replacement or alternative model for the provision of higher education.  In contrast to the red herring concern over the salaries of university presidents, our general approach to this crisis must become more fundamental.

[Incidentally, beyond the aid itself, it cost the state of California $1.2 billion just to administer its responsibility for student aid, and both are excessive when contrasted with the aid and administration of the professional and co-operative alternative models I develop

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