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Sylvia Kronstadt: Paying too much for U. president

By Sylvia Kronstadt

Published: Wednesday, April 27 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Now that we are going to be losing University of Utah President Michael K. Young to the University of Washington, it might be fun to try a little experiment.

Let's offer 25 percent of what we've been paying Young and see how many energetic, experienced, visionary, charismatic applicants we can attract. Those who believe that we need to pay big money to get big talent are wrong, in my opinion.

Young is the fifth-highest paid public university president in the country. He makes about $750,000 — more than twice as much as he did in 2007, while tuition during those years has risen nearly 40 percent.

Wouldn't it have been refreshing if he had said, "I don't need all that money, and I would be ashamed to accept it?"

He knows that students are struggling with tuition increases of 10 percent a year, and many nonacademic employees are making poverty-level wages. Even in the best of times, salaries such as the one paid to Young are unseemly. They reflect the dangerous and growing disparity between rich and poor in this country.

I believe that people who have exciting, challenging, prestigious, creative jobs should be paid less, and those who have tedious, dirty, dangerous, low-status work should be paid more. We who have enriching careers are lucky, not superior.

Let's do something radical and see if we can start a national trend. Let's advertise the position and offer a salary of $200,000, with no benefits except for insurance and 401(k). Let's see who pops up. We might be pleasantly amazed.

With the exception of my part-time newspaper work, every job I've had in the past 40 years has been in the public or nonprofit sectors. I took the jobs, despite the low pay, because the work was exhilarating and ground-breaking, and I believed in the mission. My colleagues in all of these jobs have gone to the top universities in the country, and most had law degrees or MBAs. They took far greater pay cuts than I did in order to work for these dynamic, ethical agencies that were dedicated to the public good.

For all of us, it was unquestionably worth it. We loved our jobs. We were making a difference. We had a freedom to innovate and collaborate that was priceless.

So do university presidents. There really are very talented, seasoned people out there who care more about a meaningful challenge than they do about the paycheck. Our country has thousands of excellent people who have the magnetism, managerial skills, forcefulness and values we need in a university president.

I strongly believe that we could pay a small fraction of the current salary and get someone who is at least as effective, if not more effective than the smooth-talking people who are a part of the revolving door of university presidencies. We might even come across some brilliant, quirky Steve Jobs kind of guy who will help us devise a new system of delivering quality education that actually addresses today's and tomorrow's realities.

We should start thinking — and looking — outside the box. Utah should take a stand and have the courage to get out of the ridiculous "arms race" that has us paying way too much for administrators, coaches and many professors. Let's just stop doing it.

Why do we continue to assume that money is the great motivator when study after study proves that it is not? Status, autonomy, collegiality, pride and emotional commitment are far more powerful. And as author Charles S. Jacobs, the managing partner of 180 Partners, has written in Forbes, "As studies of transformational leadership have shown, the example should start at the top. We should replace the emphasis on financial rewards with the significance of the work to be done and its importance to our future. The spirit of service would surge."

Sylvia Kronstadt lives in Salt Lake City. She is a writer and editor whose latest article appeared in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" earlier this month. She also writes regularly for the iVillage Web site.

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