How much is too much?Peer universities are actively challenging the income inequality between their highest and lowest paid employees. Students and faculty at St. Mary’s College of Maryland have proposed a plan that would limit their president’s salary to 10 times that of the salary of the lowest-paid full-time employee. The plan also aims to ensure that each employee earns enough to keep a family of four off food stamps.
Although this plan has not yet passed, it has started a conversation at St. Mary’s about the disparity between executive compensation and staff pay. We do not propose a reduction in President Richard Brodhead’s salary, but think that students should consider whether or not high executive pay is warranted at an institution committed to public service.
Although St. Mary’s risks losing qualified candidates by reducing the salary of their president, the students and faculty behind the proposal hope to attract a president who agrees with the goals of the pay plan. According to St Mary’s mathematics professor Sandy Gazell—an author of the plan— students want a president whose behavior aligns with the mission of the university.
According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report from 2013, Brodhead makes nearly $1.2 million per year. Most employee pay data is not publicly available, but we know that some of the lowest paid employees earn so little that Duke felt the need last year to offer housing subsidies to some staff. In the past, some low-paid workers have also been given little to no notice when opportunities for work were cut short.
As a non-profit institution that prioritizes public service through education, it is surprising to see such stark contrasts in salaries. It is understandable, moreover, that universities like St. Mary’s, Vanderbilt, Brandeis and others are challenging this disparity.
Although we do not endorse cuts in Brodhead’s salary, it is important to assess the fairness of collegiate pay schemes. If the president’s salary reflects the value we place on his work and his contributions to the University, do the low salaries of Marketplace employees indicate how little we value their work and contributions? If, as a University, we believe that Brodhead deserves $1.2 million each year—which is arguably more than any family needs to live comfortably—then must we also maintain that the lowest paid employees deserve to earn so little?
It is difficult to disentangle the cost of a president from other expenses, and it is true that salaries are mechanistically determined in a marketplace of competitive universities. Consequently, it is easy to write off persistent income inequalities by insisting that they represent the way things have inevitably to be.
But equity in institutions of higher education should not be understood as a simple byproduct of market exchanges. Although the University’s competitive advantage is hugely important, questions of fairness ought to be treated separately from those of competitiveness.
Students at other universities are having conversations about equity in compensation, and, if this is something that matters to Duke students and faculty, perhaps we need to have this conversation here. Lower executive pay might translate into lower quality executives, but, for some students around the country, a president willing to take a pay cut as a show of solidarity might be the right person for the job.