Home » VT Digger » Dewalt: UVM is unaffordable, caters to the elite—VT Digger—11/23/2011

Dewalt: UVM is unaffordable, caters to the elite—VT Digger—11/23/2011

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Dan Dewalt. Original op-ed: November 23, 2011.


VPR recently interviewed UVM Interim President John Bramley. During the conversation, he was asked about UVM’s affordability for Vermont students and about the out-sized salaries of UVM’s top administrators. Some of his answers revealed just how far the gap between the privileged and rest of us has grown.

He stressed that UVM gives financial aid to students and quoted the current $12,180 tuition costs, neglecting to mention that room, board and other fees bring the cost up to almost $25,000 per year.

“We give excellent value for the money” he said, but showed no understanding of the actual impact of the thousands of dollars in student loans, often at interest rates approaching 10 percent, on the Vermont student who does not have financial backing from his/her family to pay for college. Graduating from college with a debt of $50,000 (or more) is not uncommon these days, and there are very few jobs that pay enough to meet that load of debt coupled with living expenses.

When defending his $325,000 salary (not including percs and benefits), he said, “ Yes, that’s a lot of money. I think I work pretty hard for it.”

“If you look at what I get paid compared to a single mom with three jobs at minimum wage, it’s outrageous, if you look at a baseball player, or a hedge fund manager, I think its pretty reasonable,” Bramley said. “So it’s all relative.”

Indeed, since he gets less than a hedge fund manager, we should consider his salary a bargain? Has it ever crossed his mind that he could trim his own personal salary down to $225,000 and give a fully paid UVM education to four Vermonters every year with the savings? Upper echelon earners don’t think in those terms, they only compare themselves with others of their ilk, a small coterie of overpaid executives who manage to arrange for big pay and bonuses whether they succeed or fail during their tenure with companies or universities. (UVM’s outgoing president resigned early, but still managed to get a 17 month paid leave, — at $27,000/month — to help him rest up between leaving as president and when he’ll return as the highest paid professor at the university.)

Bramley trotted out the self-serving and tired argument that you have to pay these high wages to attract the proper caliber of executives. Maybe we should think more about the downside of having executives separated from their constituents by an insurmountable class gap. What proof is there that a a quality candidate for UVM president could not be found among people who would be willing to work for a more modest salary? It also doesn’t hurt to remember that money isn’t the only draw for quality leaders. The governor’s job in Arkansas paid a notoriously low wage in 1978, but that didn’t stop Bill Clinton from campaigning hard to win the seat.

Even though Bramley acknowledges the existence of the low wage parent, he can’t possibly understand the strain and worry that haunt that parent at every waking moment, as he or she struggles to make ends meet without enough money to pull it off. The wealthy understand the rest of us as statistics, or as markets, or as units of productivity, but, by virtue of the wall of privilege that they have erected around themselves, they have very little capacity to truly understand the challenges that we face everyday. So while it is ridiculous to suppose that there is no place for them in our economy and lives, it is equally ridiculous to think that they should dictate all of the economic terms under which we all live.

If UVM is truly to serve the interests of Vermonters and the state, it needs to provide an education that is affordable to a majority of Vermonters. That is not now the case, and if UVM continues to browse only among the wealthy elite for its leadership candidates, it will continue to burnish its ivory tower image, but it may not do much to integrate the university into the fabric of our lives. Vermont does many things differently than the rest of the country.

Why not have a university that demotes elitism and embraces instead values of egalitarianism and universal education? If we can work for affordable health care for all, why can’t we chart our own unique path for a quality secondary education for all as well? As long as the top UVM administrators are beholden to and invested in the status quo of the elite executive world, it is unlikely that we will see real change.

If Vermonters want a university system that will serve us all, we will have raise a mighty noise. Just as the economic system no longer serves us, our higher education system is becoming more dis-functional and remote from everyday Vermonters. We need not accept either of these deficiencies. As the Occupy movement has awoken us to see what power we might exercise as citizens, let us look in every direction to see where our current systems have gone awry. Our leaders show us everyday that they are not up to the task, let’s push for a new type of leadership and start to move ourselves out from under the smothering control of the current power elite.

Comments

Jamal Kheiry
Mr. Dewalt,

You describe as “tired” and “self-serving” the argument that positions of great responsibility must offer high salaries and benefits to attract the right people, but simply throwing insults at an argument is no substitute for a sound counter-argument. Rather than describe *why* the argument is “tired” or otherwise invalid, you ask a question: “What proof is there that a quality candidate for UVM president could not be found among people who would be willing to work for a more modest salary?”

I would submit that experience throughout the world aptly demonstrates that to attract and retain world-class management abilities requires remuneration that is competitive with what others are willing to pay for such abilities. People who can be successful CEOs are rare, and therefore command high salaries, just like others who have rare, sought-after talents. Are you suggesting that companies and institutions around the world are refusing to hire extraordinary people who can manage giant organizations for lower pay, simply because they enjoy paying more?

walter carpenter
I would like to know why this particular CEO at one institution, UVM, makes more than the governor or Vermont and nearly as much as the president of the USA, whoever those people happen to be.

Jamal Kheiry
Mr. Carpenter,

There is no shortage of people willing to run for high political offices because of the prestige and power that come with them. Therefore, high salaries are unnecessary.

To suggest that the presidency of the United States of America – the most powerful position in the history of all humanity – should be judged by the same (or even similar) standards as the chief executive of UVM is absurd in the extreme.

Brian Tokar
The myth of ‘CEO excellence’ is a fraud, pure and simple, whether in a university setting or on Wall Street. The outsized greed and manipulations of an elite club of individuals has contributed greatly to the destabilization of the world’s economies. Managerial salaries have bloated to hundreds of times that of the average worker in the US. Is there any wonder that a movement of Occupations has spread across the country, and around the world, focused significantly on their depredations?

At universities across the country, this ‘CEO’ mentality has led to a near-suffocation of academics at the expense of growing ranks of administrators and managers. UVM now has well over 100 administrators with salaries exceeding $100,000! Student numbers and tuition costs have risen precipitously, while the academic budget has been essentially flat for many years. What do all these administrators contribute? Mostly, they exhaust talented scholars and teachers with overloads of paperwork, administrative wrangling, and facile blue ribbon ‘initiatives’ handed down from above that make it increasingly difficult to do the job of educating students.

While UVM does what it can, under present circumstances, to be as affordable to Vermont students as it’s able, the institutional context makes this goal almost impossible. The university’s debt load is steadily rising (a consequence of administrators’ notorious ‘edifice complex’), and the outsized payoff to the recently departed president is only the most extreme symbol of how its funds are mismanaged daily. The most striking fact is that this precisely matches the trend all across the country. It’s why the University of CA trustees are now pushing for a tuition rise of more than 80% and why academic quality at US universities, long a magnet for students from around the world, is declining precipitously. We can do better here in Vermont. For more insight on the national trends, I recommend http://futureofhighered.org as a place to begin.

Jamal Kheiry
Mr. Tokar,

Your claim about CEOs is extraordinary. You are saying that thousands upon thousands of companies and institutions – even those that compete against each other – have agreed to pay their CEOs more than they’re worth, even though it’s a “fraud,” and almost anybody could do the same job for a lot less money. And further, you contend they are all in the same club.

When I was a reporter in the mid- to late-90s, I interviewed people in the “Patriot” movement, who were convinced that the United Nations was going to take over the U.S., and that our presidents were in on it. Your conspiracy theory sounds similarly implausible.

Brian Tokar
No ‘conspiracy’ is implied here at all. Many respected economists have written about how excessive CEO pay is a product of particular institutional changes in the relationship between corporate executives and shareholders that have evolved over the past couple of decades.

To address the wider questions, what social purpose is achieved by CEO pay rising into the tens of millions? Are today’s CEOs actually producing tens or hundreds of times the value of their forebears some decades ago, who settled for mere hundreds of thousands? Is this pattern of executive compensation – and the corresponding changes in income distribution overall – unrelated to the economic malaise that has overtaken most industrial economies?

More specific to the case at hand, is this model of executive leadership actually serving higher education? I don’t think people at UVM, or at universities across the US that have fallen victim to this model, believe that it is serving the goal of advancing education at all. In fact many view this management model as generally corrosive to the advancement of education.

Ron Jacobs
Well said, Mr. DeWalt. As for the idea that “world-class” management require overpaying people, nonsense. There was a time in the not too distant past when education was considered a vocation, not a way to make a huge salary. It seems to me that if Mr. Bramley and whomever replaces him were truly committed to the educational principles UVM professes, then a lower salary would be worth the opportunity to insure that those principles were maintained and even enhanced. Instead, Bramley, like his predecessor, prefer a corporatized university that pretends that having highly paid administrators and lots of big buildings is the same thing as creating a quality learning environment open to all Vermonters qualified to attend. One other thing, while I do not disparage the amount of work Mr. Bramley does (I’m sure he works hard in his own way), his claim that he is somehow worth at least ten time more than most of the rest of the people that work at UVM rings of a little too much self-importance for me.

Carmyn Stanko
As president of UE Local 267 Service & Maintenance Workers I see how damaging Fogel’s administrations was and now Bramley will carry the same torch…..while more than half of our membership doesn’t make close to a livable wage. Now all the University wants is huge give backs for their outrageously poor leadership. Enough is enough.Those that defend the CEO mentality don’t have a clue and never will.

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