Mind the Gap


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Mind the (Wage) Gap

Should university administrators be earning more than $1 million?

by Naomi Sharp

For all the discussion last semester of University President Lee Bollinger’s $700,000 raise (false) and his $3.4 million salary (true), he was only Columbia’s third-highest-paid employee by latest count.

With $3,389,917, Bollinger ranked below Nirmal Narvekar, President of Investment Management ($3,401,720) and Dr. David Silvers, Director of the Dermatopathology Laboratory at the medical center ($5,325,776). In total, nine Columbia employees were paid more than a million dollars during the 2012 calendar year. The numbers appear in Columbia’s most recent, almost 300-page 990 tax exemption form, which the IRS requires most universities to release because of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

Hearing how well the higher-ups are paid rarely generates goodwill, especially among a student body whose default setting is cynicism toward the administration. Still, it’s important to note that however large these salaries seem, Columbia is no outlier. In universities across the United States, the salaries of a handful of administrators are rising.

Should we be bothered by $1 million-plus salaries at universities? And if so, what about them deserves criticism? Those questions can’t be answered by looking at the highest-compensated employees in isolation. Million-dollar-plus salaries may be defensible; many universities argue that they’re necessary. A more relevant problem is the disparity between seven-figure earners and other workers who are struggling.

There is no corresponding section of the 990 for the lowest-compensated employees, though perhaps there should be—because a conversation about a university’s highest earners is just as much a conversation about all the people who are not.

The Million-Dollar Club

A ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents in 2012 published in The Chronicle of Higher Education shows President Bollinger in third, behind Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and John Lahey of Quinnipiac University. The survey included almost 500 private nonprofit colleges, with a median presidential salary of slightly less than $400,000. Thirty-six presidents earned over $1 million.

As the Chronicle chronicles rising presidential salaries each year, boards of trustees across America offer similar responses: Their president’s compensation is commensurate with his or her excellent performance, and comparable to presidential compensation at peer universities. In short, competition is steep and colleges must pay up for good leaders.

By economic measures, President Bollinger has been highly successful at Columbia. His 2006-2013 capital campaign raised a record-breaking $6.1 billion. He has expanded Columbia’s global presence with centers across the world, and Columbia’s neighborhood presence with the ongoing construction of the Manhattanville campus. In a recent interview with the Lion, Bill Campbell, the former chair of the Board of Trustees, called Bollinger the best university president in the United States. (Not everyone agrees, as evidenced by the ongoing controversy over the president’s handling of sexual assault and prison divestment.)

There is no endearing way to ask why someone is paid so much money, and my questions on the topic were not a hit with an administration clearly tired of the attention directed at Bollinger’s salary. Every administrative official I contacted declined to comment for this article, redirecting me to Robert Hornsby, Columbia’s Associate Vice President for Media Relations. We emailed back and forth for over a month. I posed some questions about the administration’s perspective on $1 million-plus salaries; I received a copied-and-pasted recent statement from Bill Campbell, another from current Board of Trustees chair Jonathan Schiller, and part of an op-ed President Bollinger wrote for the New York Daily News in 2007 about job creation in Manhattanville. Then a final, short email: “Your questions are rhetorical and we have provide [sic] you with our response.”

* * *

“Let me ask you this,” says Doug Levy, Chief Communications Officer at the Columbia University Medical Center, during a phone call in December. “Who would you want looking at your skin biopsy to determine whether you have skin cancer? Do you want the best in the world or do you want somebody who isn’t?”

I select option one.

“Okay. So how do we have the best in the world without paying them a salary based on what the market is for their profession?”

It’s a relevant example, since Columbia’s highest-paid employee works in dermatology. Dr. David Silvers earns over $5 million a year, but like many top earners, he earns back his salary and more with the money and resources he brings to the medical center. (Dr. Silvers originally agreed to an interview, but cancelled after a last-minute scheduling conflict.) CUMC’s top specialists earn revenue from their clinical practice and from research grants, and part of those profits provide salaries for their support staff. In that sense, Levy sees them as job creators whose practices benefit everyone else.

While most of the highest earners at CUMC are specialists, all of them are administrators—running a lab like Dr. Silvers or Dr. Jeffrey Moses (director of the Cardiovascular Interventional Catheterization Laboratory; $3,131,957), or an entire department like Dr. Craig Smith (chair of the Department of Surgery; $2,096,607).

The medical school exists in “a world market,” says Professor Bentley MacLeod, who teaches in the Economics Department and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. “In a world market, high compensation is the consequence of the cost of attracting the most skilled individuals. Compensation would be lower if Columbia were to restrict attention to a pool of individuals in a smaller, more local market.” Restricting the competition wouldn’t make sense for an academic medical center trying to build a reputation as one of the best of its kind, for the simple reason that finding the most talented people is more effective when there are more talented people to choose from.

Levy argues that CUMC does what it has to do to attract and retain talent. “Some of those people are incentivized by finances. Many of them are not. But even the ones who are not driven by the financial incentive can’t help but be aware of the marketplace here in New York,” he says. And later, in an emailed statement: “Columbia salaries reflect […] New York City realities.”

Professor MacLeod defines an economic salary as whatever an institution has to pay an employee to keep them working at the same high level. “The only question we would ask as an economist is ‘If he was paid less, would he keep the job?’” It’s the million-dollar—or rather, the five-million-dollar—question.

New York City Realities

“It’s okay to justify the top salaries,” says Noah Drezner, an associate professor of higher education at Teacher’s College. “But if we’re truly an institution that believes in equity, we need to be thinking of living wages and ‘New York realities’ for those people who are at the other end, and who are in the middle as well.”

In recent years, Columbia has had its share of labor controversies. Among the more volatile were the Faculty House protests in 2013, when students joined workers to protest exploitative working conditions. (A refresher: employees, some working 80 hours per week yet still classified as part-time, received less than living wages—the lowest salary that allows a worker to meet his or her basic needs—and were pressured to take health care cuts in exchange for salary increases.) Three Faculty House employees also filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the university withheld earned tips from workers. This January, Columbia agreed to pay an $875,000 settlement.

In the new and somewhat improved Faculty House contract, a full-time porter earns $12.87 an hour. According to an online living wage calculator created by MIT, that’s 12 cents more than the hourly living wage in New York for a person with no dependents. If a single parent in New York is supporting a child, however, MIT lists living wage as over $24 an hour. The closest Faculty House comes to that is $17.68 an hour for a full-time sous-chef.

On the other hand, almost all of the full-time dining, public safety, facilities, and custodial workers I spoke to on the Morningside campus felt that Columbia paid them fair wages. Seneca John left his job as a cook and supervisor at Long Island University to work in Ferris Booth Commons. The pay at Columbia is “far, far more. Way better,” he says without missing a beat. “I have no complaints whatsoever.”

A Facilities employee who works in waste management echoed the general consensus that a raise would be nice, but that Columbia is more generous than other comparable employers. In a number of professions, Columbia does offer more than its competitors. The school recently raised its per-course salary for adjunct Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization professors from $6,000 to $8,000—not exactly the jackpot, but more than double the nationwide average.

Some workers feel stretched thinner than others, often because of their family situations. A Public Safety officer, who chose to remain anonymous (Vice President of Public Safety James McShane doesn’t like publicity), showed me his paycheck on his phone.

“I make $81,000, right? Look how much is in overtime. Taxes took out $30,000, and child support is $20,000. Look how much I took home—$32,000.”

“Want to talk about struggling? If I don’t at least try to get some overtime, I’ll be struggling all day long. I’m here doing this for Christmas,” he says, adding that he was working overtime as we spoke. “When gas went up, when milk went up, six dollars a gallon—you gotta deal with it.” He says he doesn’t want to sound bitter about his job, but it can be physically and psychologically exhausting. He’s on his feet much of the time, outside in bad weather, making arrests, chasing down people stealing laptops. “I’ve been at suicides here,” he says. “Some things here you never get out of your head.”

His radio goes off—intox call, at 2pm on a Saturday.

Re: Unions

The experiences of individual workers vary, but Columbia’s relationship with its unions has been historically tense. United Auto Workers Local 2110 first tried to mobilize in the 1980s; Columbia responded by hiring anti-union consultants.

Maida Rosenstein was there from the beginning. As president of the union, she has gone through numerous contract negotiations with Columbia. “The university had no hesitation in exploiting people tremendously before there was a union contract, and I believe it’s only because we have collective bargaining that we’ve been able to move wages up,” says Rosenstein. In her experience, there’s “often a need for a very high degree of collective pressure on the university to bargain fairly.”

Despite its name, UAW Local 2110 represents clerical workers, mostly on the Morningside campus and a few at the medical center. A clerical worker, sometimes even one in a senior position, typically earns less than $45,000 a year. The lowest potential salary listed in 2110’s latest union contract is $35,565. “We still have a membership that lives from paycheck to paycheck,” says Rosenstein.

When I spoke with her in December, she was just beginning a new round of negotiations with Columbia. Three years ago, among other concessions, the university proposed a change in health benefits that would increase the co-pays workers had to pay for doctors’ appointments. “They are demanding concessions in benefits this time around as well,” Rosenstein says. She notes that it’s early in the process, “but nonetheless, it certainly doesn’t project a good picture for our negotiations. And it’s very, very frustrating.”

Columbia has tried to short-circuit the union whenever possible, she says, often by getting rid of unionized positions and hiring non-union workers to do jobs that are “identical” to those of her membership—minus the rights of union employees. 2110 workers aren’t the only ones unhappy with the university’s treatment of unions. Last semester, the Spectator reported that three maintenance workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 241 submitted a grievance alleging that Columbia hired an external candidate over union members who were qualified for the position, breaching its collective bargaining agreement.

More recently, Columbia has refused to acknowledge Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, which is campaigning for recognition as a branch of UAW Local 2110. Two leaders of the group, Seth Prins and Olga Brudastova, say that their peers are proud to be at Columbia but feel undervalued as workers. Seth, a 4th-year Ph.D. student in epidemiology at the Mailman School of Health, earns $22,500 a year as a research assistant and TA in the masters program.

“It’s barely a living wage, it’s like the federal minimum for a stipend,” he says. “There are some departments that are very, very competitive and pay livable wages for living in New York City, and then others that don’t. It’s kind of a black box as to why certain departments are able to do that and others aren’t, and why Columbia doesn’t set the floor at a certain more reasonable level.”

The university is familiar with the cost of living in New York, since it owns graduate student housing. Seth and Olga say that rent for Columbia-owned housing increases four or five percent every year due to inflation. “But our stipends don’t,” says Seth. Effectively, that means pay is decreasing every year. Some graduate students can’t afford health insurance for their spouses or children.

In early December, GWC-UAW (accompanied by Rosenstein, who has been advising the up-and-coming union) delivered a letter to President Bollinger’s office. “Like other workers, we deserve living wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations and consistent and transparent employment policies,” read the letter, which asked Bollinger to agree to “a fair and efficient process to recognize our union.” They never received a response.

“I think it’s just their typical behavior,” says Olga, a first-year Ph.D. student in civil engineering. “It was their decision apparently, again, not to treat us as workers, not to treat us as people, not to respect our opinions.” They’ve filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, which can mandate the university’s cooperation. NYU recently became the first private university to recognize a graduate workers’ union; Seth and Olga still hope Columbia will be the second.

In a rare public statement on the issue in 2004, President Bollinger said to the University Senate, “The graduate students and the administration will be better if we do not have a union acting as an intermediary between graduate students and the faculty,” according to the Spectator.

When asked in mid-January about the union, Bollinger told Capital New York that he had “heard that there was some movement on that.” Reiterating his opposition to unionization for graduate students, he added, “I really think of our graduate students as students, not as employees. And that has a large meaning to it. I think we feel a responsibility for students beyond what it means to be an employee.”

A representative of Columbia’s Human Resources department declined to comment for this article, explaining that all media inquiries should be directed to Robert Hornsby.

Our Money and Our Mouth

Of all the statements the university releases about its priorities, its financial statements are the most revealing. Increasingly, Columbia is channeling its money toward expansion. President Bollinger prioritizes Manhattanville and our multiplying global centers. The administrator-specialists at the medical center draw in grants that help the medical center grow. Our investment managers earn millions to make billions.

But Columbia is inconsistent in its treatment of employees and departments that don’t directly support the school’s growth. Last year, two non-tenured professors at the Mailman School of Public Health were dismissed after failing to bring in enough money in grants. Both were recognized as experts in their fields: Kim Hopper on homelessness, and Carole Vance on sexuality and human rights. In 2011, Andrew Delbanco was one of several university professors to warn against the “slow attrition” of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, adding that it was “time for the university to put its money where its mouth is” by dedicating a separate endowment to the Core. In early 2014, as consistent budget problems got worse, every one of the 27 department chairs in the School of Arts and Sciences signed a letter to President Bollinger stating that their “obligations cannot be fulfilled given present levels of support.” (He has since pledged to develop a fundraising campaign for the Arts and Sciences.) In the past three years, the number of undergraduate American history courses taught by tenured professors has decreased by 44 percent. Professors in the English department are asked to share offices.

Simultaneously, the number of administrators at Columbia is swelling. The university’s top administrators are often borrowed from the private sector. Most of the Trustees have corporate backgrounds, and Bollinger has served on many corporate boards, including as chairman of the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The school depends largely on the priorities these administrators set, and on their definition of prestige.

Just as widening wage gaps are part of Columbia’s shift toward corporate values, and just as Columbia is part of a larger trend of corporatization in higher education, that trend is part of a reality in the US today: the corporate sector wields disproportionate power, and income inequality is worse than in any other developed country. Giant wage gaps aren’t new, but their encroachment into the university system is relatively recent.

“We’re not part of corporate America, but we’re still a microcosm of American society. And until we start thinking more largely about our wage and wealth issues in the States, there’s no incentive for higher education to be at the forefront of those conversations,” says Professor Drezner. “One might argue that we should be at the forefront, because of who we are and where we sit and what we say our mission is, but that is more of an internal moral obligation.”

Rosenstein believes in that obligation. “Columbia should be acting to counter these trends of inequality in our society,” she argues, “Not acting to reinforce them and justify them.”

But at the heart of the issue, says Seth of GWC-UAW, “is whether you accept the market logic that is running academia these days, or influencing academia.”

“I’m not sure that I do accept that logic.”ω