Bowing to pressure from Utah's governor, the State Board of Regents has rescinded pay hikes it awarded in September to college and university presidents in an attempt to bring compensation in line with the schools' out-of-state peers.
Gov. Gary Herbert last week asked Regents to postpone the raises until they complete a comprehensive survey of presidential salaries.
Regents chairman David Jordan promptly gathered the board for a special teleconference Monday. Without discussion, regents unanimously agreed to suspend the $100,000 in pay hikes they approved on Sept. 16 for the eight campus leaders, who are poorly paid relative to national averages. Some legislative leaders had castigated the whole idea of raising salaries when campuses were slashing budgets and laying off people.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Monday he was pleased the regents withdrew the raises. "It sounds like they recognize the governor is the head of the executive branch of government."
Giving raises at this time "sends the wrong message," according to Waddoups.
In a news release announcing the Regents' move, Jordan reiterated his appreciation for Herbert's leadership.
"We share the Governor's confidence that, with all interested parties working together, we can establish a compensation policy that will keep Utah competitive in recruiting and retaining outstanding college and university presidents," the statement said.
Most of the presidents had said they would divert their extra money to scholarship funds anyway because they were disinclined to take pay hikes while their colleagues' salaries remain frozen.
The proposed pay hikes weren't intended to reward sitting presidents so much as ensure Utah schools can vie for national-caliber administrative talent and retain leaders already in place, according to Jordan. Regents say they are competing with other states and Utah's low pay scale puts them at a disadvantage in recruiting campus leaders, particularly for the state's two big research institutions. A search is now under way to find a successor to Michael Young as University of Utah president.
The move to give Utah presidents their first raises since 2008 was sparked by the Regents' search consultant, the Illinois-based firm Witt/Kieffer, which informed them that the U.'s current base pay, currently $348,403, is too low to guarantee a top-notch candidate pool.
"The University of Utah is a $2 billion corporation. Put that in business world terms, and wow, your president is grossly underpaid compared with the private sector," said Cameron Martin, associate commissioner of higher education for economic development and planning. "It's a tough time when we've had to make budget cuts and institutions have had to realign themselves. But you don't want to make the mistake of shortchanging yourself for the future. We're damned if we [raise salaries] and damned if we don't."
The U.'s presidential base salary is near the bottom of its official list of "peer institutions," which pay an average of $412,167, or 18.3 percent more than the U. This list, which was updated last March after the U. was invited to join the Pac 12, includes 10 schools similar in mission, research footprint, student preparation, geographic region and enrollment size. According to data compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the 2009-10 salaries for these schools ranged from $273,333 at the University of Cincinnati, the only one that pays its chief less than the U., to the University of Washington, where the U.'s former president now resides, at $620,004.
In that context, boosting the U. president's pay by 3.3 percent to $360,000, as Regents planned, may not amount to a competitive salary as they trawl the nation for a new chief.
Similarly, Utah State University's presidential base pay of $283,605 is 17.1 percent below the average of universities on the Logan school's peer list. Only Montana and New Mexico state universities pay their presidents less, while Washington State University pays its president more than double that amount.
But in addition to the base pay, presidential candidates also can be enticed with offers of a car, a house, payment of club dues, bonuses, retirement contributions and deferred compensation. In the Chronicle's 2009-10 survey, Young's deferred compensation package, worth almost $450,000 over his seven-year tenure, was the second most generous of the 185 public research universities listed.
Utah's commissioner of higher education is preparing a request for proposals for a consultant to conduct the national salary survey, which should be finished by May. By then, finalists for the U. president's post likely will have been selected.
But the study will be still be relevant because its results can be used to negotiate compensation or validate the salary of the winning U. candidate, according to Martin, an expert in presidential evaluations.
"The compensation will be competitive, but that doesn't get determined until you're on the nine-yard line ready to make that first down," Martin said.
What college presidents make
The University of Utah has compiled a list of institutions that are comparable to it in terms of mission, research footprint, student preparation, geographic region and enrollment. Here are the base salaries of presidents of those institutions for 2009-10. In addition to base pay, college presidents can earn bonuses and deferred compensation packages, so their total salary is often much higher:
U. of Washington • $620,004
U. of Virginia • $487,000
U. of Pittsburgh • $460,000
U. of Iowa • $450,000
U. of N.C., Chapel Hill • $420,000
U. of New Mexico • $387,600
U. of Illinois, Chicago • $375,000
U. of California, San Diego • $356,248
U. of California, Irvine • $356,248
U. of Utah • $348,403
U. of Cincinnati • $273,333
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Utah System of Higher Education