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

Posted on July 21, 2017, 2:22 am
8 mins

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!

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

  1. Mike

    July 21st, 2017

    Great article David, and I especially enjoy the comment “a sense of public service”. My father worked at the UofA from 1957 to 1994 as support staff, so he watched the story unfold exactly as you describe above and was always talking about it. He always mentioned how over time the erosion of the “sense of public service” of the upper administration was replaced with the increasing salaries. He was quite proud to work for the UofA in his early days because of the public service undertone, but this pride was lost and replaced with his frustration of the bourgeoisie bureaucracy that was unfolding.

  2. Sam Gunsch

    July 21st, 2017

    This USA analysis sounds a lot like Canada’s experience.
    How universities turned into corporations
    Business, Education, Politics Dec 16, 2015


    excerpt: So, what are universities doing with all this money? For one, they are paying for an army of bureaucrats, with those at the top making six- and seven-figure salaries.

    excerpt: What is the motivation behind these seemingly wasteful expenditures?

    Like corporations competing for market share, universities are engaged in a relentless battle for rankings.

    excerpt: For the last 35 years, public universities in the US have undergone a transformation into a new breed of institution, one that is characterized by byzantine bureaucratic structures and boards of trustees composed of business elites. Our nominally “non-profit” public colleges are starting to look and behave like corporations.
    How did we get to the point where our students are treated as customers and their educations are treated like a commodity?

    I think the article omits an important contributing factor: how the political adulation for corporate leaders/corporations ramped up in 80s.

    Government needed to be led in CEO-like fashion because you know…gov’t is the problem. Corporations are the solution for society’s problems. Hence, make universities run like corporations too. Corporate CEOs as the new Napoleans to lead us to the promised land of markets first. Public service for the common good… naive, foolishly old-fashioned.

  3. sadprof

    July 21st, 2017

    Well said! I’ve watched over the last 20 years as more and more administration gets hired and compensated at increasingly high salaries and benefits (don’t forget those!) while there are fewer professors teaching heavier course loads. Of course most senior professors are tenured and don’t want to teach big intro classes so that work falls to grad students and sessionals.

    Sessionals are people with PhDs who haven’t gotten one of the few tenure-track positions available these days. They are on contract from term to term with little or no guarantee of stability or getting hired year-after-year. A recent job add I saw offered $7,000 per course (that’s a pay rate of $1,750 per month for 4 months where the sessional does 5 hours of class room instruction, plus marking, office hours, and creating the course content) where the course would have 50 students minimum. That’s actually considered a good rate. Grad students get less support when they get told to teach because universities see them as a source of cheap labour and they get told that it’s their duty to teach for less than minimum wage because it is “professionalization” even though the vast majority will never get the tenure-track job they were promised at the start of their grad school experience.

    Not to mention the tuition increases that keep coming while my students are getting less and less. I see more and more students who have to juggle working full time with their course work to afford their education. I do what I can but this is a systemic problem that needs to be fixed. I’ve had one administrator who worked in finance ask me why more students won’t take their holiday ski vacations off to volunteer to work with the university. This kind of cluelessness is endemic in admin and I think a large part of why the admin is acting in the way it does.

    • Lars

      July 21st, 2017

      I’ve worked as a sessional, and for a forty-hour week, my hourly rate was about $12.50/hr. That’s conflating class hours with preparation time, composing and proofing exams, and administering the course, but among them, those activities certainly add up to more than 40/hrs/week. And this is work that requires a doctorate, with the huge investment of time and effort, and foregone income, that that involves.
      The one thing that you can say for it is that it allows you to rack up lecturing experience for your CV.

  4. David

    July 21st, 2017

    It all has really gotten out of hand. Just because you are the head of a large institution does not mean you are as important as perhaps certain of your paid flunkies tell you that your are (usually just before they ask for some favour).

    A university’s achievements are the sum of the works of all its personnel, some well paid and well known, some not either. Part of the misguided notion stems from our indoctrination in consumer culture, where if you pay more, supposedly you get better quality. Of course, that is not always the case, but it is the job of well paid marketers to make us believe that.

    I think a university would be better served by someone with a strong commitment to public education and community service, rather than someone with a strong commitment to their own pocketbook. This would also allow the university to put more of its resources into education, rather than say fundraising to cover the senior administration’s hefty pay. I think taxpayers would also prefer someone with a commitment to public education and community service, rather than someone who is a want to be corporate CEO.


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