Dialing for dollars for deans

Private donations to give UC deans pay raises? What’s next, a telethon?

University of California President Robert Dynes (pictured with cup) doing a little aggressive panhandling.

University of California President Robert Dynes (pictured with cup) doing a little aggressive panhandling.

Photo Illustration by Sharon Wisecarver

Because those hurricanes down in the Gulf of Mexico have blown most other news off the television screens and newspaper pages for the last month or so, you might not have gotten the word that a crisis has emerged in California higher education: a dire salary shortfall among the top earners in the statewide University of California system.

Until quite recently, few Californians fully understood the economic suffering being endured by employees in the top ranks of management throughout the UC schools. Chancellors and vice chancellors are routinely being asked to make do on salaries as low as $300,000, plus housing, car, moving, maintenance and entertainment allowances. Despite these deplorable wages and working conditions, those dedicated educators continue to soldier on, nagging their boards and their regents and their other governing bodies with the consistent threat that if they are not paid more money, they might be forced to leave and take better paid positions elsewhere.

In making this argument, they compare their work to the work done by corporate CEOs who make oodles more money than academic administrators, which really isn’t fair at all. And boards of regents and trustees and the other bodies that lend disinterested advice to academic institutions tend to be sympathetic to that argument, since most of the people who serve on these governing boards are drawn from the world of business, and they well understand its ways. So it is that they forget the distinct differences between for-profit private corporations and nonprofit public institutions, both in form and in function. But that’s a separate matter and hardly worth considering when people are suffering.

The situation has grown more desperate with each passing year. Boards of regents shower more and more salary increases on those at the top of the administrative totem pole, but each year the salaries and bonuses in the private sector grow larger, outstripping those meager allotments doled out to the suffering chancellors, presidents and deans in the world of academe. Each year, regents and trustees have to deal with sallow-faced and impoverished top managers and hear their cries of woe. The top management people of California’s top university system are thus annually reduced to the role of Oliver Twist, extending their bowls and pleading for more.

And who can blame them? They are practically living on the streets, these selfless public servants. Some top managers are making barely five times the salary of a lowly professor, and only 30 or 40 times the amount paid to the lecturers who provide the bulk of undergraduate instruction to students.

It is a shameful state of affairs to see the top management people so close in salary to the people who work in the engine rooms of higher ed, and so the office of UC President Robert Dynes came up with an innovative way of addressing the problem. The public university system would seek private donations specifically to pay for raises to those administrators making more than $350,000 per year. A “bake sale for the bosses” kind of a deal. Dynes, with connections to both the corporate and military establishments, was hired a few years back at a mere $395,000 plus pasha-style perks, so he would be one of those underprivileged managers this new funding scheme is designed to help.

It is a brilliant notion, proving once more the extraordinary managerial skills and public-relations savvy the UC system purchased when it hired people clever enough to come up with it. Only brilliant managers could have foreseen just how popular this idea would be with the general public, the fat and happy taxpayers who had grown so weary of witnessing the travail their top educators were forced to suffer.

That is as far as the idea has gone to date, but it is easy to imagine that plans may be taking shape already to best determine how to raise those private donations. High-level meetings likely will be convened to discuss the possibility of holding a telethon on the model of the annual Jerry Lewis muscular-dystrophy fund-raiser. Lewis may not be available, but those meetings surely will explore other possible hosts for this most prestigious charity event. Perhaps comedian Carrot Top would be willing to host the UC fund drive, or perhaps these top academic managers will go with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Or, should these distinguished academicians consider Carrot Top or Triumph insufficiently dignified to serve as pitchmen for the university, perhaps Dennis Miller would be a suitable compromise.

Other matters likely to be taken up in those planning sessions are sure to concern just which of the top administrators would serve as poster “child” for the fund-raising effort. Though several of the eight top administrators with salaries over $350,000 appear appropriately ragged and pitiful, any assembled committee in its right mind is most likely to go with the image of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who is practically living in a packing crate. Lured to the Bay Area from Toronto, Birgeneau struggles to get by on a shamefully low compensation package that totals somewhere around a million a year, once housing and other allowances are factored in. Compared with the way corporate CEOs live, the state of California might as well be asking Birgeneau to eat out of Dumpsters. And, given the strata of elite movers and shakers the chancellors in higher education must consort with, it will hardly do for representatives of the state’s top universities to show up in clothes from Goodwill. Where are our values?

So, fellow citizens, get your checkbooks out. Pledge generously, and we can wipe out administrative penury in our lifetime. The scourge of virtual vagrancy in higher education can be eradicated, and we can do it without being preempted by the megacorporations. Just because big-business money has bought the political process doesn’t mean we have to let it own our educational system, too. If cabdrivers and barbers and people who work at Burger King will just pony up a couple of bucks each, we can make college administrators temporarily happy, and then California higher education can, once more, hold its head high as it marches toward a future where professors and students, graduate assistants and department secretaries can all take pride in the lifestyles enjoyed by the people who manage them.