The University as Farm Club

The good news: the highest paid public employee in each of the fifty states works for an academic institution.  The bad news: not one of them really has anything to do with education.  In Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Delaware the highest paid state employee is a university president, in Maine it a law school dean and in North and South Dakota, New York and Massachusetts it is a medical school dean.  In every other state except Utah the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach (a hockey coach in New Hampshire).  Only Utah has as its highest compensated employee someone who may actually be involved in education, but that figure is still emblematic: a plastic surgeon.

Clearly, a major purpose of the American university is to be a farm club for the NFL and the NBA, something that baffles non-Americans.  And well it might, since supporting professional sports has absolutely nothing to do with the true mission of the university, and football and basketball programs suck up resources that might otherwise benefit education.  In the year 2011-2012 only West Point showed a profit in athletics; all those revenues, especially from TV, never see the light of academic day but are simply pumped back into athletics.  And it is still not enough, forcing universities to find more money, typically through so-called student fees, which are easier to increase than tuition.  It has been calculated that 99 major schools each funneled an average of $5 million more into their athletic programs by employing student fees and “university subsidies.”  And though unlikely, if all the money donated to the athletic programs of these institutions went instead to the real university, each would see an average increase in income of $12 million.

Of course any money saved would not automatically go to instruction, equipment, research, faculty or staff.  All the evidence demonstrates much if not most of it would end up funding the central administrations, which are growing at a phenomenal rate, both in terms of numbers and compensation.  Vice-presidents/associate provosts are being created for every conceivable administrative niche, many of them redundant and the vast majority of them having absolutely nothing to do with actual education.

My former employer, the University of New Mexico, lists 45 individuals under the headings “University Officers” and “University Administration,” to which may be added 15 Deans.  There is an Executive VP of Administration, apparently because the administration is so large that it must itself be administered.  There is a VP of Equity and Inclusion, a VP of Human Resources, an Assoc. VP of Student Development and a Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and if that does not cover students, add a VP for Student Affairs and a Dean of Students.  What can all these people possibly do bedsides draw big salaries?  And at UNM the Athletic Director is actually a VP, which in a way is a burst of
honesty.  And remember, these numbers remain steady or actually increase at a time when faculty slots are going unfilled because of “budgetary constraints.”

All these people are compensated at a level generally far above that of the staff and faculty.  The median salary of a public university president is now $440,000, having increased 4.7% in 2011-2012, a rate that outstrips inflation and the raises for faculty and staff (and American workers in general), which are frequently missing altogether.  A study of 145 schools revealed absolutely no relationship between the quality of the institution and the pay of its president, but try telling that to boards of regents, who constantly claim a good (read “expensive”) president is essential for a good university.

The American university is becoming a joke.  Yes, an excellent education is still available, at least in the sciences and engineering – and of course business – and especially at the graduate level.  But while faculties are stagnant or even shrinking, administrations and athletic programs are growing and absorbing more and more resources, which means skyrocketing tuitions.  Students and taxpayers get to pay for all these drones, and meanwhile the institution is making huge amounts of money off its unpaid “student” athletes, allowing for more administrative and athletic growth.  Congratulations on acquiring both a degree and a couple hundred thousand in debt.

There is no reason to believe this will change.  The boards of regents at public schools are typically political appointees, more concerned with image than substance and committed to “serving the people,” who of course essentially see the university as a sports venue and perhaps a job-filler.  And the prime directive of any government, as the current President of the United States is demonstrating, is to defend and increase its power.  Sure, the NFL and NBA could support all those football and basketball programs with their spare change, but why should they when students and taxpayers are doing it for them?

Finally, from personal experience: Mike Locksley, the recently fired football coach of UNM, who in two years won two games, made as much money in one year as I made in 31 years of teaching.  He immediately found another job.

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