PR Band-Aids

Robert C. Dynes, president of the University of California, has been actively engaged in a media campaign intended to stop the hemorrhaging of credibility caused by ongoing revelations about secret and excessive pay packages offered to members of the upper echelons of the university’s management class. He’s not the only honcho in the UC system who has been busily applying public-relations Band-Aids to a pretty big wound. But in this case, even the Band-Aids are defective.

Top UC administrators have said their only offense was excessive zeal to do well on behalf of the universities they run. The chancellors and presidents and vice-presidents engaged in those clandestine pay packages only wanted to ensure that the UC system continued to attract the best and the brightest. So they say.

But the need for keeping all those deals secret is never addressed. If the argument is that you’re trying to attract the best managers money can buy, wouldn’t it help if the full compensation of your execs were a matter of public record? Why should the business of executive compensation be conducted like a drug deal on Telegraph Avenue?

The system is competing with private universities, they have argued. It’s about maintaining academic “excellence,” and it’s all done in the interest of serving students. They further claimed that big pay packages are necessary if the UC system is going to get the best researchers and the highest-quality teachers.

Though none of the criticism leveled at UC has been directed at excessive pay for professors and researchers, these management hustlers now try to confuse their salaries with the pay packages of professors and researchers who have not been the beneficiaries of the largesse they’ve been divvying up among themselves. No one on the faculty is getting these big under-the-table deals that have raised such a stink in the media.

While they argued that their top administrators deserve more money because universities throughout the system are located in expensive localities, it’s not likely that faculty would swing much weight with that argument when it came to negotiating raises. If top managers must be so richly compensated because they’re being asked to live in places like Davis and Berkeley, then shouldn’t the same argument apply to faculty?

The public-relations blitz continues as UC brass enumerate all the reforms they’re initiating, but none of these reforms was undertaken until the covers had been pulled back to reveal what was going on under them. That is hardly a claim to leadership.

In an earlier attempt at damage control, Dynes trotted out that old cliché about maintaining educational “excellence” by offering top salaries to managers in a “community of learners.” The very use of such clichés suggests a paucity of managerial imagination. Is this the best thinking big bucks can buy? Such tired groupthink has become entirely predictable, and it may be the source of many of our problems, in our institutions of higher learning and elsewhere as well.