When Michael Drake left his position as UC Irvine chancellor to become the next president of Ohio State University in June, his official salary more than doubled to $800,000.
His new pay is a far cry from the $392,200 he received annually at UC Irvine. Drake’s total compensation could eventually extend into the millions of dollars — like the previous president of OSU, who in 2013 made more than $6 million.
It’s widely thought that, among other reasons, Drake left because of salary considerations, according to Eyal Amiran, associate professor at UC Irvine.
His departure highlights an ongoing debate in the University of California about the level of compensation for the system’s highest administrators, and fundamental tension over the trade-off between quality and affordability of a UC education as state funding continues to dwindle.
The UC Board of Regents voted at its September meeting to set the pay of UC Irvine’s new chancellor, Howard Gillman, at $485,000, an increase of almost $100,000. The board also passed salary increases for the chancellors of four other campuses, bringing the average UC chancellor salary to about $420,000, excluding UCSF.
Yet that number lags by about $90,000 when compared to the average compensation of 28 other public institutions’ leaders.
“I have a feeling (Drake’s departure is) part of the reason the regents considered the … increase,” said Sanaa Khan, executive vice president of the Associated Students of UC Irvine.
But many believe that compensation increases in times of economic uncertainty are fundamentally misguided. For some students, faculty and legislators alike, the university’s argument for increasing chancellor compensation to maintain quality isn’t logically flawed — it’s wrong in principle.
Over the past 10 fiscal years, the average UC chancellor salary increased by about $150,000, but accounting for inflation, the real change is about $80,000. During the same period of time, however, the average leader of a public institution in the Association of American Universities saw a real salary increase of about $115,000.
Despite the competition, the university’s critics argue that increasing chancellor compensation while simultaneously asking the state Legislature for funding presents a conflicting message. Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown line-item vetoed $50 million for the university.
“Unfortunately, yes, it gives the impression that we’re doing fine, if we can give really substantial raises to administrators, when this is still clearly not the case,” said Patricia Morton, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations.
In 2012, Assemblymember Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, introduced a bill that requested the regents not increase compensation in years when state funding decreased or when tuition increased.
“The Assembly member felt (salary increases) … sent the wrong message to the rest of California, especially in a time when California was not on track,” said Primo Castro, a spokesperson for Hernandez.
But from the perspective of the university, the market pressures leave the university no choice but to increase pay.
“We need to make sure people are compensated fairly if we want to keep them,” said Shelly Meron, a UC spokesperson.
The legislature has responded with various other measures to exercise influence over UC administrative salaries, such as a proposal that recommended the regents cap employee pay at the level of the state governor. All such proposals have failed.
To UC President Janet Napolitano, however, UC chancellors aren’t compensated fairly for the work they do — not in 2012, and not today.
“These are big, complicated institutions with billion-dollar-plus budgets … and we pay their chancellors as if they were middle managers at a tech firm in San Francisco,” Napolitano said in an October meeting with student press.
A matter of principle
Many students and faculty say attempting to compete in the traditional market for chancellors isn’t necessarily conducive to fulfilling the university’s mission of providing a high-quality and affordable public education.
While less-competitive salaries might attract chancellors less prestigious than those the university currently has, there’s debate over whether that will affect the academic quality of the institution, said Joe Kiskis, UC Davis professor emeritus.
“I don’t think it would make a whole lot of difference. But that’s not what the Office of the President would argue,” he said.
According to Kevin Sabo, chair of the University of California Student Association, students recognize the financial pressures on the university, and they understand that chancellor pay represents a small fraction — less than 0.1 percent — of the university’s total budget.
Still, he said, to consider increasing student tuition while giving pay raises to administrators “sends a horrible message to students and taxpayers alike.”
“Most public policy is the perception of policy to the public,” Sabo said.
To many students and members of the public, the university’s reasoning is sound but based on the wrong principles.
Sabo likened a chancellor choosing to preside over a UC campus to a lawyer choosing to be a public defender.
“If you want to be chancellor of a UC campus, you should be acutely aware of the limitations of a public budget,” Sabo said. “You shouldn’t be going in expecting a fat compensation check at the end.”
Nicholas Dirks, for example, took a pay cut when he left his position at Columbia University to become the chancellor of UC Berkeley last year. His incoming salary, however, was $50,000 greater than his predecessor’s pay.
The dearth of state funding presents the university with the challenge of balancing academic quality initiatives, such as administrative pay, with keeping tuition and fees low.
For the university, chancellor compensation increases are simply unavoidable if the university wishes to maintain its status as one of the premier institutions of higher education in the world.
“We need to make sure (chancellors) are fairly compensated if we want to maintain the quality of the university for our students and for the state as a whole,” Meron said in an email.
But to Khan, student government executive vice president at UC Irvine, quality is important but shouldn’t be emphasized to the detriment of accessibility and affordability.
“Basically, we can’t have a successful public university … if we’re increasing administrative pay while increasing student tuition,” she said.