Cave ne cadas

It’s a boilerplate argument constantly made by CEOs and highly paid academic administrators alike that big salaries and bonuses must be paid in order to attract the best people. They must, they argue routinely, pay the big bucks to remain competitive.

Their argument is based on the idea that the only thing that motivates people to do good work is ever-larger infusions of cash. A corollary to that idea is the notion that what drives the best people more than anything else is ever-higher salaries. When that argument gets made by the captains of industry, it means one thing, but when it gets made by the stewards of our most prestigious educational institutions, something has gone rotten in the heart of the nation.

The most egregious current example of this idea is found in the case of Robert Dynes, chancellor of the University of California system, who recently got a nice pay raise to $405,000 per year. That salary, as large as it is, doesn’t amount to half of his compensation package, a package that includes a mansion; a health-care package fit for a king; and other bonuses, benefits and benisons.

Dynes was only the top of that UC heap, in the company of a great many other chancellors of this and that who got big raises last month.

But just how bright are these people when they consistently show so little sensitivity or political savvy? How smart is it to lobby for and accept raises for the top guns at the same time fees are being increased for struggling students?

These top administrators seem to have forgotten that they eat at the public trough, that they are not engaged in a for-profit enterprise, and that their example sends a message about the value of work to all those who seek higher education. In that message, they debase the very mission they engage in, and they teach all who might choose to decode their message that the truest measure of worth is the size of one’s paycheck.

What is it that these highly paid public servants do that makes their contributions so expensive? Well, one thing they do is practice the art of public relations, though they do it poorly. When Dynes came under fire for hiding some of the costs of the various compensation packages offered to the highest paid of UC employees, he vowed, in PR-speak, to learn from the criticism. He called the UC system “a community of learners,” and he said the lesson to be drawn from the criticism was to do a better job of explaining why the honchos there deserved more money.

Despite the media light being shed on compensation packages, UC regents voted 17-2 to raise fees. Undergraduate students, who have seen fees jump from $3,859 to $6,802 over the last four years, will pay $7,294 next year.

“Fiat lux” (“Let there be light”) is the motto on some UC campuses. Judging by the attitudes of the people who run things there, perhaps that motto should be changed to “Cave ne cadas” (“Beware of falling from your high position”).