Why universities should consider pay cuts - Macleans.ca

Why universities should consider pay cuts

Students and parents don’t see value in $400,000 salaries


A protest against cuts to the University of Alberta (Ravanne Lawday)

I attended a lecture at the University of Toronto last week where some of Canada’s brightest higher education experts spoke to a Canadian Studies class about The Future of Canadian Universities. It was in a derelict lecture hall in University College with broken seats and dusty windows, a common sight in an age of austerity.

The consensus among the administrator, the bureaucrat and the professor on the panel was that with tuition at $7,180 and rising in Ontario and universities experiencing annual crises to balance their books, something’s got to give. According to them, that something ought to include “differentiation,” a government policy that would force professors and schools to focus on what they do best, either teaching or research—not both.

Differentiation may indeed help and it’s a conversation we should have. But it occurred to me, as I sat in that creaking seat, that something else ought to give. Them.

Administrators, bureaucrats and (to a lesser extent) tenured professors, just don’t seem to be getting it. Students, parents and taxpayers are increasingly skeptical about the value of university education, and high pay and benefits are symbols of an ivory tower that’s out of touch.

We learned Thursday that more than 15,000 Ontario university employees made more than $100,000 in 2012. Ten university presidents cost more than $400,000. Amit Chakma, president of Western University, cost more than $500,000. It’s true that what tenured professors make, around $115,000, doesn’t go as far as it used to, but most private sector employees will never earn that much and few of them have access to high-quality pension plans, unlike tenured professors.

Still, it was panelist Harvey Weingarten, president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (a public agency focused on quality) and a former president of the University of Calgary, who best illustrated the disconnect between those running the academy and the rest of us.

When a student asked on Thursday about high tuition, Weingarten told the tale of when his office was “occupied” over a $127 fee hike. The students, he said, weren’t opposed to paying more, but simply wanted to know what value they’d get from the increase. “It’s a reasonable question,” he said, “and if we articulate what learning outcomes they’ll achieve and how we’re spending their tuition dollars,” he added, “I predict we’ll see far fewer students occupying presidents’ offices.”

I’ve seen him speak before and I’ve read his blog. He’s a smart man and, like many administrators I’ve met, I don’t doubt that he cares about students and works very hard. But after hearing this out-of-touch statement about “value,” I can better understand the outrage of the occupiers.

Ontario’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure revealed on Thursday that Weingarten earns $218,000. That’s a huge salary compared to what most most Canadians will ever make, albeit a pay cut from the $441,000 he earned as president of the University of Calgary in 2008-09. Then again, he’s enjoying a roughly $4.5-million pension from Calgary, so he can afford to now work for $218k.

Here’s why I see that as so out of touch. Students who are struggling to pay their rent, going deeply into debt while worrying about getting a job—any job—after graduation, will probably never feel they’re getting enough “value” from their degrees that such numbers won’t be offensive. It’s even harder to justify such amounts while governments cut university budgets, as they just did in Alberta. It’s not surprising, then, that Alberta students are demanding administrator pay cuts in response.

Symbols matter and a $4.5-million pension and $400,000 salaries don’t look good.

These may be truly charitable people, but I’ve yet to read a press release headlined UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT DONATES HALF OF $300,000 SALARY TO SCHOLARSHIP FUND. A move like that may not satisfy the occupiers, but it would go a long way to building goodwill with the public. 

Administrators will argue they could make more in the private sector, in the U.S., Asia or Dubai. They will argue their salaries are a drop in the bucket at big institutions. They will say they deserve to be the best paid, because they are the best and the brightest. That’s all probably true. Still, can’t the best and brightest just be happy with $120k, a modest pension and the dignity of the job?

Until university compensation comes back down to earn, tuition will continue to rise, dissatisfaction will continue to grow and I predict we’ll see more students occupying professors’ offices—not fewer.


Why universities should consider pay cuts

  1. Centennial College President Ann Buller recently donated $150,000 to fund a scholarship at her school. I don’t know any more than what’s been in the media, but this seems unusual and commendable.

  2. Josh, you like to throw around salary figures but talk very little about how much education and money is required to become a professor. Perhaps you should discuss how many years of postsecondary education the average professor has compared with someone in the private sector, then you could actually make some kind of valid statement. Rightly so, having more years of education is almost always linked with higher earnings, in academia or almost anywhere else. Better skills equals better pay. That being said, union contracts in academia should reflect the times and obviously now is not a time for wage raises in most sectors.

    • If you are looking at salaried employees at universities, you need to consider the senior administrators rather than professors, in most cases. Speaking from personal experience; my Father was a prof, had a bit more education than my Mother, who worked in the private (oil and gas) sector, and my Mother had a fairly significantly higher salary than my Father. I agree with JMC.

  3. Yes, Mr. Weingarten is grievously out of touch. But when you ask, “Still, can’t the best and brightest just be happy with $120k, a modest pension and the dignity of the job?” the majority of faculty would say . .. yes please!
    -$120k exceeds the maximum salary for many ranks on the campus where I work (University of Calgary). Max for a professor is $143k.
    -many professors are in fact extremely happy to think that one fine day, they will progress from their starting salaries in the $60k range, at age 35 or so after 10+ years of study, toward $120k, maybe in their 50s. They can get there by successfully competing with their colleagues for raises each year (merit pay comes from a zero-sum competitive pool and is based mainly on publications).
    Finally, here is the pay grid for many of our faculty members, who are paid by the half-course. 8 to ten half-courses would be full time, if you could ever get that many courses:

    Salaries and Benefits – Term Certain Instructors
    1. Salaries
    1.1 Subject to Clause 2, a Term Certain staff member appointed pursuant to Article 23 shall be paid at a salary rate per half-course equivalent, which is at least the following:
    Minimum Salary Rate Effective as follows:
    Base Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 5
    July 1, 2012
    $6,049 $6,187 $6,325 $6,463 $6,601 $6,739

    • Well said

  4. For many years I’ve been lucky to teach two or three half-courses per year at the U of C. My annual salary is about $19k. The department will not hire me to teach more than this because they already have a full compliment of professors. The majority of these prof’s are 70+ years of age and are at the top of their pay scale, about $150k.

    I will probably never get anywhere close to the top of the pay scale because I’m already 50 years old and even if someone dies tomorrow and a position opens up, I will not have enough years ahead of me to accumulate the necessary pay increments.

    The U of C needs to reduce spending by 41 million in the next year thanks to the recent Redford Budget. The U of C has offered the prof’s a retirement incentive package, but I have yet to see anyone in our department take advantage of it. This is really too bad because if one senior prof retires, two eager, new instructors could be hired, which would definitely help the university’s fiscal situation.

  5. Maybe universities would have more money to maintain their quality and tuition fees would be lower these days if universities actually tried considering cuts on salaries and if the government thought of spending a little more on post-secondary education. It’s also unfair to think that we have to pay tuition fees that keep inflating just so that they can keep their salaries up. Help lower the 3% cap by signing the online petition!

  6. Professors are at the top of the pay-scale in academia. They should be compared with the industry executives who are at the top of the pay-scale in the industry. The amount of talent, dedication, training, experience, and hard work to get to the top in academia and industry is similar and few make it all the way to the top in either category. Clearly, the average salary of over 1.5 MM+ dollars for the top managers in industry is a far cry from 150k+ for the top professors in academia. Once the executives get paid one tenth of what they currently get paid, we will live in a better world. Few would suggest the professors should get paid ten times of what they currently get paid to get to the levels of top execs. For some reason we tend to believe that top execs are much more talented, hard working, fair and overall better people who deserve more. What else could explain this ten-fold difference?