When Claude Steele, UC Berkeley’s new executive vice chancellor and provost, transitioned into his position at the beginning of April, he accepted a base annual salary of $450,000 — tens of thousands of dollars higher than the salary of his predecessor.
But Steele will take home about $165,000 less per year than he did in his former position as dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and hundreds of thousands of dollars less than other university administrators in similar roles nationwide.
When hiring for top academic positions, university officials must balance the task of finding talent that reflects the academic quality of the UC system while also compensating administrators with more limited salaries that reflect the reality of what a public university can pay.
The UC Board of Regents, which sets the pay for top administrators like chancellors, provosts and sports coaches, has struggled in the past to pay what some candidates desire. At the Board of Regents meeting last month, officials presented data that showed how UC compensation compares to peer institutions.
The data showed that the university offers salaries to top administrators that are significantly less than their competitors, amounts that regularly fall below median market salaries for administrators in universities nationwide.
“It has happened when we could not afford to pay what somebody wanted,” said Regent George Kieffer, chair of the regents’ compensation committee. “But in those cases, we were comfortable enough with other alternatives to make that choice.”
From July 2011 to the end of June 2012, former president of Yale University Richard Levin received a total compensation of more than $1.6 million, based on university tax forms. University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer received a total compensation of more than $3.3 million. That figure includes not only about $918,000 in base compensation but also deferred compensation, bonuses or incentives that schools sometimes offer.
The seven-figure salaries extend beyond the Ivy League and other schools often ranked in the top 10 in the country. John Sexton, president of New York University, earned a total of more than $1.3 million from September 2011 to August 2012.
“One thing you see is that (the salaries) are quite variable,” said C. Judson King, the director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. “So it’s hard to talk about them generically as if they’re one figure. They’re really all over the map.”
Public universities, however, tend to be more reserved with their salaries.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will earn a base salary of $486,800 per year — an amount below the UC-calculated median salary for chancellors nationwide of $569,000. Salaries of UC chancellors overall tended to be closer to $412,000, an amount lower than 75 percent of their counterparts nationwide. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan earned $485,000 from July 2012 to June 2013.
UC compensation for executive vice chancellor and provosts tends to be higher, relative to competitor salaries, however. Steele’s salary of $450,000 ranks higher than more than 60 percent of salaries of other provosts.
Still, administrator pay has drawn ire from students and others. In November 2011, the regents voted to raise the salaries of some administrators, drawing protests from students across the system.
Then, at the January 2014 regents meeting, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Regent Norman Pattiz broke from the pack and voted against Steele’s compensation package.
Newsom cited concerns that Steele’s compensation — markedly higher than his predecessor and other provosts in the UC system — would put more wage pressure on UC executive compensation.
“While the qualifications are self-evident, (and) Mr. Steele is exceptional, we’re a public university with a public trust,” Newsom said at the meeting, noting concerns such as competitive wages for the UC’s lowest-paid employees. “I completely respect the argument. It’s about quality; we’re competing with the best, we’re competing with private institutions. That said, I can’t in good conscience support this with all those considerations.”
ASUC External Affairs Vice President and UC Student Association board chair Safeena Mecklai said she thinks students understand that administrative salaries need to be competitive to draw top talent to the university.
“I think that a lot of the administrators who come to the UC do so understanding the values of the public mission,” Mecklai said. “I think it’s a real balancing act to ensure that we’re maintaining the talent in our administration while also ensuring that the students aren’t feeling the burden of having to pay those salaries.”
At other universities, students and professors have attempted to combat what they see as a problematic increase in executive salaries.
At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a small public college, students and faculty have proposed a plan that would set a base-level salary for the lowest-paid workers and then cap the pay for administrators at up to 10 times that amount. The proposed maximum salary for the college president would be set at $299,760.
“At the very least, it puts the pressure on two areas: One, are we paying our lowest workers a living wage,” said Robin Bates, an English professor at the school. “Second, the question of runaway administrative salaries. So, even if we don’t get this accomplished, hopefully we can raise one and put a check on the other.”
Bates said the goal is to recruit candidates who are idealistic and believe in the mission of the public university — to provide a high-quality and affordable education, a motto echoed by Steele.
“What are the things that attract people? Salary is an incredibly important one; it’s maybe not the only one,” Steele said in an April interview with The Daily Californian’s Senior Editorial Board. “The mission itself is attractive. It’s something I find attractive.”
Kieffer, however, is skeptical that such a plan would work at the University of California. A number of factors are considered when deciding how much to compensate an incoming official, including the candidates being considered and the current compensation of the candidate, as well as a survey of what officials at comparative institutions make.
A plan like what some at St. Mary’s have proposed would restrict who UC officials could consider when filling top academic roles, Kieffer said.
“It would tie your hands and push you into the very problem you’re trying to avoid, and that’s being able to attract who you want to attract at a given time,” Kieffer said. “We can still be tight-fisted and smart at the same time. Putting a one-size-fits-all multiplier in effect, in my personal judgement, would not be a wise thing to do.”
UC President Janet Napolitano and Kieffer both said the regents are committed to getting the best talent possible for the positions.
In a March interview with the Daily Cal, Napolitano said the university would not compromise on quality.
“We need to do everything we can to keep costs low,” Napolitano said. “But not at the sacrifice of the excellence of the university.”