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Colleges need to rein in administrators' pay

Colleges need to rein in administrators' pay

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At a time when the average student loan debt in Virginia is more than $30,000, recent graduates are facing one of the toughest job markets in years, and many parents and students who suddenly found themselves in difficult financial straits due to the COVID-19 pandemic are worried about whether they can even afford higher education, college administrators with lucrative employment contracts are insulated from the pain.

Their institutions may not be fine, their students may not be fine, but they are still cashing their hefty paychecks just the same.

With most college football and other sports canceled, many colleges and universities lost a large source of revenue in addition to the losses they suffered refunding housing and dining fees and moving most, if not all of their classes online.

Although it’s too early to know exactly how large the total financial hit from COVID-19 will eventually be, a letter sent in April to the leadership of the House of Representatives by several Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation painted a dire picture.

“Absent significant additional financial support from Congress, many institutions will face the prospect of immediate layoffs, devastating budget cuts, program eliminations, and possible closures,” read the letter signed by Reps. Donald McEachin, D–4th, Don Beyer, D–8th, Jennifer Wexton, D–10th, and Gerry Connolly, D–11th. “Direct federal funding is desperately needed to help these institutions address revenue losses and expenses resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.”

For example, Virginia Commonwealth University was projecting at least $50 million in lost revenue and instituted a hiring and salary freeze in July. But according to salary data obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch under the Freedom of Information Act, VCU President Michael Rao’s total annual compensation was $1 million in 2019, making him one of the highest-paid public university presidents in the nation.

So is University of Virginia president James Ryan, who makes $1.8 million a year in total compensation, according to the Chronicles of Higher Education, while UVa is facing $18 million in losses for refunds for on-campus housing and dining that students couldn’t use. William & Mary President Katherine Rowe and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands are also in the top 100 highest paid public university administrators in the U.S., both taking home paychecks in the $600,000 range.

Ryan and others announced in April that they would accept a 10% pay cut to help their institutions weather the COVID-19 storm, calling it a “shared sacrifice.” But the real question is: Should the leaders of tax-supported colleges and universities be paid such high salaries in the first place?

We have noted before tuition and fees at Virginia’s state-supported institutions of higher learning have increased every year since 2001 far beyond the rate of inflation, while student debt has continued to skyrocket. While top administrative salaries are just a small part of this increase, they do add to the year-over-year tuition hikes that make Virginia’s state colleges and universities less and less affordable.

During the current crisis, their boards of trustees need to review their compensation policies and scale back all future contracts and pay increases. The notion that they can’t find any qualified individuals to run these campuses unless they offer luxurious salaries and cushy benefits that put them in the top 1% of all Americans is ludicrous.

Giving administrators a haircut will be a concrete indication that they are indeed serious about holding down escalating costs.

And if these institutions — which are supposedly devoted to learning instead of lining their leaders’ pockets — won’t do that, they should stop asking struggling taxpayers for help paying their bills.

The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

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