A wacky idea for getting more value from university administrators: pay them less and never mind competitiveness

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PHOTOS: Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt serving pancakes at yesterday morning’s Premier’s K-Days Breakfast on the south lawn of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. Below: Just to stick with the photographic theme, even though it has nothing to do with the story, Premier Rachel Notley cooking up the flapjacks Mr. Schmidt was serving.

Here’s a PhD thesis idea for some bright young researcher in economics, sociology or political science:

  • Chart the pay and perks of senior administrators at Canadian universities from, say, the 1950s to the present
  • Then chart the productivity of the same people or the value of the work they’ve done according to some sort of yardstick
  • Then try to answer this question: Are we getting as much value per dollar paid as Canadians did from university administrators in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s?

Not to ruin the suspense, I’d wager this research would reveal, regardless of the measure of productivity you used – except, perhaps, drumming up corporate donations in return for corporate control of curriculum in desperately underfunded institutions – that we’re not getting nearly as much value as we used to.

Here’s just one measure that occurred to me just now: the number of public universities established in Canada.

Consider the decades of the 1960s and the 1970s, when there was a great burst of public university creation and building in Canada. There were 29 Canadian public universities opened in that period, 30 if you want to be generous and count Toronto’s York University, which was established in 1959.

Can anyone tell me what university presidents were paid in those two decades, and what they were paid as a percentage of, say, a full professor’s salary? It’s not a number that springs immediately to the computer page after a simple Google search.

I can tell you this much, though. It wasn’t nearly as much as they are paid now in terms of purchasing power, and it wasn’t more than 10 or 15 per cent above what a full professor earned.

What’s more, universities did not run on virtual indentured labour by sessional instructors and teaching assistants, many of whom will never become tenured professors or even have what most of us would consider a good job, especially in light of the cost of earning the prerequisite doctoral degree.

So let’s use that measure to compare the two creative, busy, productive decades of the Sixties and Seventies with what’s been accomplished since the year 2000, when Canadian university administrators’ salaries climbed into the stratosphere in imitation of the yawning gap between corporate bosses and their employees. In Alberta, for example, the normal base salary for a university president is now in excess of a half a million dollars a year.

Since 2000, two public universities have opened in Canada.

If you think that’s not a fair comparison because we haven’t quite had two full decades since 2000, well, I’ll give you a 10 year bonus. If you add the 1990s, that total rises to … wait for it … three!

Well, I suppose you could always describe that as a 50 per cent increase if you were justifying a big increase to, say, the University of Calgary president’s $600,000-plus base salary.

Yes, this measure – plucked from a blogger’s hat – may not explain the differences in pay over the decades at existing universities (where, regardless of what you’re told, the complexity of administrators’ responsibilities hasn’t really grown all that much since the Sixties). But it’s said here that, however you measure it, we’re not getting our money’s worth in many ways, and not just in Alberta where average university administrative salaries are the highest in Canada.

This is a problem that matured here in Alberta, by the way, during the long years of Progressive Conservative government. But wherever it happens it’s a natural offshoot of the corporatization of everything and the self-serving and deceptive belief that you have to pay obscene corporate-style salaries to get “the best people” at the top of public institutions.

So Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt was unquestionably right earlier this week when he said that Alberta needs to limit the pay and perks of Alberta’s post-secondary administrators.

Post-secondary pay and perks are “way out of line with the rest of the country,” Mr. Schmidt explained, which is obviously true enough, so it’s probably a good thing that the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley plans to do something about it as early as next spring.

But you can count on it, whatever they do, it not only won’t be enough, it won’t be much. The hint was in Mr. Schmidt’s next comment, dutifully recorded by the Edmonton Journal’s scribe: “We certainly don’t want to be uncompetitive with other jurisdictions, but we can’t be setting the bar at the highest level either. We can no longer afford to do that.”

If you ask me, what we can’t afford to do any more is de-skill teaching jobs at public universities, then turn them into precarious “gig economy” work.

We’ll never get that situation to change, though, with the current generation of overpaid administrators steeped in corporate-inspired neoliberal ideology.

So why not try something really crazy and make a conscious decision to be uncompetitive with other jurisdictions while making front-line teaching jobs better paid, more plentiful, and more secure?

While we’re at it, we could make something that was a typical quality among university administrators in the 1960s and 1970s an absolute prerequisite for the next generation of lower-paid administrators – a sense of public service!

As Mr. Schmidt himself observed: “These positions don’t go unfilled when other universities in other jurisdictions are offering less than we do. Somebody will still step forward and be the president. …”

Ha-ha! Just kidding. Of course this can never be done. As St. Margaret Thatcher taught us, there is no such thing as society.

If I start suggesting we’d get better results by paying top administrators less and teachers more, you’ll all think I’ve been indulging in smoked banana peels, or even that stuff the prime minister plans to legalize next year.

Geez, maybe it’s time for a holiday!

Categories Alberta Politics