Senior administrator compensation should provoke scrutiny from Vassar community

Is there such a thing as making “too much” money? What if you work for a not-for-profit? These are questions I think we, as the collective Vassar community, ought to ask more often and more publicly than we do right now. Do Vassar’s administrators and senior professors make too much or not enough as the leaders in our institution’s continuing education?

There’s no denying that higher education has become a very expensive venture in recent years. As schools meet ever-higher expectations for particular services and offerings, students and their families contribute toward record-high costs of attendance and the number of deans and other senior administrators at a school grows significantly. All of these administrators are seen in some way as necessary to the day-to-day processes of our school.

But just how much does a Vassar senior administrator make? Since Vassar is a not-for-profit, this information is publicly available to an extent. The IRS requires certain individuals, as well as the five highest paid employees, to have their incomes reported on an annual return known as an IRS 990 form. These forms, available on public charity databases, detail this information in Schedule J, Section II. Income is divided into a number of categories, including base pay, benefits compensation and deferred income. Collectively these earnings make up the total pay of a senior administrator or key employee at a school.

When it comes to Vassar College, all of the administrators listed in the 2012-13 IRS 990 earned more than $100,000 in base pay. President Hill has by far the highest base pay, exceeding $400,000. Vassar’s administrators also receive additional earnings through deferred compensation, benefits and other gains that, in President Hill’s case, tops out over $800,000 for that particular year. These earnings do fluctuate depending on each administrator’s specific financial relationship with the College.

Of course, the goal of compensations for any competitive institution—be it a for profit corporation or a not-for-profit college—is to be able to obtain great talent with it. The trustees took on a major search almost 10 years ago to recruit President Hill and attract her to Vassar’s campus. Still, it’s worth noting that any individual with an income above $100,000 falls among the top seven percent of all Americans in compensation, according to the United States Census Bureau.

But this article is not about whether Vassar’s senior administrators deserve the money they receive. Instead, I ask why we don’t talk about the nature of compensation at elite liberal arts colleges like Vassar. There has been a steady push toward furthering dialogues over issues on campus on the issues of race and identity, though the discussion of income inequality and earnings is one that remains often behind closed doors.

I am not aware of what relationship the VSA has to discussing administrative compensation, though I imagine it is something left for discussion mostly among the Board of Trustees. I also must acknowledge the complexities of a typical compensation package and the multi-year contracts associated with it.

Talking about money is a natural taboo. It’s common in America to covet compensation that would allow you to live comfortably. I think Vassar’s administrators do work hard, do care about the goals of this institution and do want us to have a good college experience. I think the Board of Trustees and administrators try to find a compromise for their effort that is reflected in their compensation.

Compensation within a liberal arts college is also far different from larger institutions or among universities. As a Division III school, we don’t spend the millions of dollars that go into a valuable football coach. We also pay far less than what the highest paid university presidents receive. Marist College’s President earn more than two million annually, a statement to the value Marist sees in Dennis J. Murray, their President for more than 35 years. Even among our peers, Vassar doesn’t pay as much as Kenyon College, Amherst College and others.

This story of well-paid presidents also contrasts with that of Raymond Burse, Kentucky State University’s sitting president who took a $90,000 pay cut to help raise the minimum wage for workers on the school’s campus. Again, this isn’t about whether anyone should be taking a pay cut to offer such a pay raise, but instead about the necessity of a better dialogue on our campus about compensation overall. The passive discussions that go on in the status quo are not a healthy way to maintain campus morale for its hard-working staff.

Among The Chronicle of Higher Educations, Huffington Post, Forbes and other media, the concept of administrative compensation is a quick and easy jab against the ever-rising costs of college. I don’t know what the right number is for a senior administrator’s compensation. I also don’t know where we should find the middle-ground between those salaries and that of Vassar’s many other staff. What I do know is that we need to start talking about this issue as a campus sooner rather than later.

—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.

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