Friday, September 30, 2011

Measuring the value of a university president

Two institutions in my hometown of Salt Lake City, the University of Utah and Westminster College, are currently in the middle of presidential searches.  And, naturally, this has led to discussion about presidential salaries and the need to offer a compensation package sufficient to attract talented leaders. The Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial this morning ("The Pay Game:  Academic recruitment not cheap") and argued that the salary increases proposed by the Utah State Board of Regents for the presidents of each of the state institutions (but called into question by Governor Gary Herbert) are a good investment when it comes to finding the right kind of leader.

I think the Tribune has it right, particularly given the fact that the total compensation increase, across all eight institutions, amounts to around $100,000.  That's a lot of money, but a drop in the bucket when considering the total higher education budget in the state of Utah.  If paying the University of Utah's new president 4% more than her predecessor means the state gets a great leader who can lead the its flagship institution into a new era in higher education, the Regents have made a savvy move and we should be congratulating them for being wise enough to recognize the need to make salary adjustments.

But, how much should taxpayers be willing to pay university presidents?  And, at what point does an increase in salary no longer translate into increased value for an institution?  For instance, does a $650,000 a year post really pull in a better leader than a search committee would find if the pay were $400,000 a year?  And, how does an institution measure the value added by its president?  Fundraising dollars? High-profile faculty hires?  Athletic success?  Achievement of measurable student learning outcomes?  Hitting enrollment targets?

Although Westminster College isn't likely to publicize a whole lot of information regarding the salary which will be paid to its next president, there is some evidence that attractive salary paid to Michael Bassis (the current president) has been well worth it.  In the article the SL Tribune ran in early September announcing Bassis' retirement, it was reported that his compensation package totaled a little over $500,000 per year.  That's less than the University of Utah's president will make in total compensation, but (I'm guessing) quite a bit more than the other 7 state school leaders.  However, based on what has happened at Westminster during Bassis' tenure--increased enrollment, the recruitment of a much more diverse student body, the addition of several academic and athletic programs, to name a few--it has been money well spent.  The interesting question I would ask now is, would Bassis have taken the job for $400,000 a year.  And, if he did, would Westminster have seen the same improvements during his time on campus?  What we really need is for some brilliant statistician to take the Moneyball approach and figure out how the Billy Beans of the world can analyze presidential performance and get the most value for their money.

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