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Volume 68, Issue 20, Monday, September 23, 2002

Opinion
 

True leadership has no price tag

Angela Patton
Guest Columnist

It is hard to disagree. Taken at face value, the recent assertion by Charles Miller, chairman of the University of Texasi Board of Regents, that employees of the UT system "deserve great leadership" seems laudable. However, Milleris comment is a feeble justification why UTis new chancellor tops the chart as the highest paid executive of public universities.

Some argue the trend in higher education towards corporate scale compensation packages is necessary to compete for the most stellar candidates. They say universities need individuals who can effectively manage and lead enterprises as large and complex as any Fortune 500 company. While few disagree universities are complex creatures in need of seasoned and savvy leaders, it is hard to accept that leadership is a corporate construct, an open market commodity for barter and bid. The culprits appear to be zealous board members, ambitious administrators, and profit-driven search firms that have pooled agendas to peddle the Executive Mystique. In the process, market value has inflated beyond a reasonable level, as search firms and top-level administrators benefit significantly from executive migration. To lure an "A" list candidate from the comforts of a well-compensated position requires that institutions up the ante.

As a countermeasure, universities employ strategies to stabilize roving-eyed administrators. It is, therefore, common to include incentive bonuses that are designed to keep sitting presidents in place. If UH is a fair indicator, a program to reward longevity has reached beyond the presidency to include the next tier of executives. 

Executive retention based on a five-year commitment can earn top-level administrators just rewards. What can only be explained as a stroke of marketing genius has resulted in UH post-dating the end-of-work day for two departed executives that enables these former employees to satisfy a five-year agreement.

Once search firms begin broadcasting this amenity, UH will no longer need to advertise executive positions. A fudge it and they will come strategy is an attractive enticement for upwardly mobile executives who appreciate a certain level of flexibility in the workplace.

We must question where we are being led. The circumstances that we find ourselves in suggest short-term thinking rather than long range planning. The very essence of education is to align individual perspective with social-minded awareness. Hefty compensation packages serve to isolate administrators from the constituencies they serve, provoking a false sense of power and self-worth. Hubris and personal agendas serve to undermine the educational mission of the greater enterprise.

Boards persist in the assertion that accountability measures are in place to monitor the performance of well-paid executives. Boards give a lot, but expect a lot. Following this line of reasoning we should expect a presidentis compensation to correspond with the ranking of a university. While UH System Chancellor and UH President Arthur K. Smith weighs in at sixth on the list of highest paid university presidents, UH does not enjoy top 10 academic stature, excluding programs that were highly ranked before Smith arrived.

Universities and the boards that oversee them began their relationship with the corporate sector when legislators determined that public education was not a funding priority. Universities are encouraged to extend their hands to the business community where administrators are exposed to the deal-making of a for-profit world.

Out of necessity, fundraising has become a major occupation of university personnel, spanning the distance from presidents to department heads, cultivating a corporate mindset that redefines institutional priorities. Before we blame legislators we should remind ourselves that these public servants are elected officials, giving the voting public a share in the responsibility. For public education to reflect higher values, the public must lobby for change.

By default rather than design, university presidents may inadvertently lead us to institute change in the funding of public education. 

Public indignation about presidential compensation indicates that as a society we continue to hold certain values dear: one university president $521,000, true leader Priceless.

Angi Patton, an associate professor of art, 
can be reached via dccampus@mail.uh.edu.

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