U of A won’t want four profs sharing president job

Application highlights the type of leadership universities are really looking for

Outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera (John Ulan/CP)

Outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera (John Ulan/CP)

If there is one thing we can agree on, it’s that we all like a good joke. And if the joke brings perspective to an important issue, so much the better.

No wonder, then, that so much attention has come to Kathy Cawsey and company, four Canadian professors who have, tongues in cheeks, offered their services jointly to be the new president of the University of Alberta. In the letter of application, the kooky Cawsey crafts a case whereby the U of A gets a great deal: four actual academics, each earning a decent academic salary, all for the price of one overpaid president.

The joke is clever, because it’s hard to deny that, however hard-working a president may be, it’s hard to imagine that he or she is doing more than four professors could do. And yet, university presidents are now making salaries that are many times that of academics and, when all the perks and bonuses are added up, are sometimes in the range of a cool million dollars. What’s more, people in Canada and abroad are taking notice.

Universities tend to defend high pay for presidents on the grounds that such salaries are needed to get people to apply and to attract top talent. Of course, when faculty make that argument, they are slammed for their lack of “restraint” and for not understanding financial realities. And in any case, the talent argument is hogwash. There are plenty of talented and experienced professors who would be glad to take the reins of a university—myself included. And, like Cawsey and her posse, I would do it for a lot less than the U of A is willing to pay. But professors like me don’t get offered university presidencies because we think that universities should be about challenging the powerful and questioning the accepted. What the U of A is looking for is someone to “interact effectively with the highest level of business, government and public bodies.”

In short, universities are, increasingly, seeking not presidents, but CEOs. Indeed, in unguarded moments, some administrators will directly liken a president to a CEO and use that comparison to defend a high six-figure salary.

To be fair, I am happy to concede that a president should make more than a professor. Not because of some vaguely defined need to find “talent”—I have never seen a university where the greatest supply of talent was in the senior administration—but rather because the president takes on an enormous responsibility. When a controversial change is made, it is the president who takes the flack. When the university makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, it’s the president who has to answer the hard questions. When things go badly at the university, it is the president whose job is on the line. With all due respect to Cawsey, I wouldn’t hire anyone who was willing to do the job for only a hundred grand. I’d suspect he or she didn’t know what he or she was getting into.

Of course, Cawsey’s Heroes are not going to get hired at the U of A. Though, if the Albertans were smart, they would bring them all to campus for an interview. (See what a good president I would make with an eye for PR?)

Still, Cawsey doesn’t want to be the president at U of A. She wants to make a point, and I submit that she may have made an even better point than she intended, because the problem isn’t what we pay presidents; it’s how we think of the job they do. And until we get back to putting real, gutsy, iconoclastic academics at the head of our academic institutions, each of our universities will continue to decline from a unique centre of learning to just another bland commercial enterprise.

And that’s no joke.


U of A won’t want four profs sharing president job

  1. Too many Universities have become diploma mills, more interested in bums in seats than academic excellence.

  2. As Cathy will be quick to point out, her is not the only team of four submitting, just part of the initial group who catalysed the action. At last count, 44 academics submitted in groups of four, and that doesn’t include the many adjuncts and graduate students who decided not to submit because their job prospects were too tenuous. And while the letters were tongue-in-cheek, they pointed to the ways that academic specializations could contribute to the navigation of academic institutions in today’s troubled waters.

    It’s also worth noting that 400,000 was listed as the _minimum_ starting salary, so clearly they expect to pay more for the position.

  3. Why is a “commercial enterprise” necessarily bland? And how can you deny that universities have aspects of commercial enterprise? They provide a service and in exchange are provided with funding -tuition being one of those sources. Why is it an either/or situation? Universities can be successful enterprises *and* be places of academic thought, debate and where great minds question all manner of things – including vision and institutional direction – as we are frequently reminded in the discussion of the principles of academic freedom. Large universities are complex, billion dollar entities with staff numbering in the thousands and student populations in the tens of thousands. As a tax payer, frankly I do not believe that a career academic who *may * have run a faculty or department is qualified to take the head role of an institution with a budget in the billions of dollars. Nor do I believe that anyone would take the position for less than $400,000/year if they truly understood the full requirements of the job; one of which is giving up the majority of your private life and leisure time for the term of your presidency.

    The real issue here isn’t one of what to pay a president. It may be about scarcity of funds and prioritization of those limited dollars. It may even be about the perceived disparity between the pay of academics and the pay of administrators. And I say perceived because what the academics don’t want you to know is that there are many tenured professors whose salaries exceed $300,000 annually. Though I wonder if it is actually about the way universities are evolving to meet the needs of a changing world and the denial by academics that universities need to do this.

    • You statement about tenured faculty is incorrect. Recent detailed salary disclosures for Ontario universities are here: http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/publications/salarydisclosure/pssd/orgs.php?pageNum_pssd=4&organization=universities&year=2013

      Tenured faculty are not starving, but faculty whose principle functions are research and teaching top out at somewhat less $200k. This includes those that have made quite a name for themselves by winning Nobel prizes etc. Those over that figure are either principally administrators (Dean & up), or physicians with clinical duties. There are a few oddball appointments in Business schools with salaries over $200k but they are quite rare.

  4. And 4 adjuncts should apply for every professorship. What do we need highly paid tenured professors for? Most are teaching classes with low enrollments that don’t even pay for themselves. We can easily replace Pettigrew with 4 hard working adjuncts who despite their talent never get asked to be on promotion and tenure committees. We would get a real bargain at half the price of Pettigrew’s 100,000 plus salary.

    • Adjuncts don’t bring in tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars from “overhead” charged to funding agencies by university administration on every grant the professor recieves. Not to mention that most tenured professors actually cost the University $0 because they pay their own salaries out of the research grants they receive.

  5. I’m going to start looking for 15 other PhD students to apply with me. Heck, even with 16 of us splitting the salary we’ll be getting a substantial raise.

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