It's become a gross norm of campus income disparity: College executives regularly collect salaries and perks that top $1 million a year as their ramen-dependent students struggle with ever-increasing tuition and mounting debt—and the lowest-paid workers are perenially undercompensated for all they do to keep the whole system running.
A minor but interesting shift took place this month when two dozen of the lowest-paid Kentucky State University workers got a hefty wage increase because their college president gave up $90,000 of his own six-digit salary so others could earn a living wage.
Raymond Burse, interim president of the school, will now receive a reduced annual salary of $259,744 so low-wage workers can get a pay bump to $10.25 an hour. By comparison, food servers were paid an average of $24,213 in the 2013–2014 school year, according to a survey published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Of course, Burse is in the unusual position of being able to forfeit part of his pay because he retired in 2012 (with good benefits) from a long career as an executive at General Electric Co., he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. Burse didn't immediately respond to a TakePart request for interview.
The KSU Board of Regents has agreed to maintain the $10.25 hourly rate for employees even after a new president is brought in, and he will continue to use it as the wage base for future hires.
"This is not a publicity stunt," Burse told the Herald-Leader. "You don't give up $90,000 for publicity. I did this for the people. This is something I've been thinking about from the very beginning."
Burse said his good deed wasn’t meant as a jab at other college leaders to do the same, but maybe it should be.
The discrepancy between the highest- and the lowest-paid employees on college campuses is problematic, said William Tierney, a professor at the University of Southern California and the codirector of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.
“Those who are making the largest salaries versus those who are making the least...the average between the two has grown over the last 20 years,” said Tierney.
Forty-two presidents of private universities made more than $1 million in 2011, according to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s not just private schools that are feeling flush. As average tuition at four-year public universities climbed by more than 8 percent in 2011–2012, four public school presidents made more than $1 million a year in compensation.
The exorbitant incomes of these executives include not only base pay but also an array of perks, from housing allowances to travel expenses (which are often first class and allotted to presidents' spouses as well) to generous retirement benefits.
While the philanthropy of KSU’s president is “admirable,” it’s not unprecedented, said Tierney. Lots of administrators give donations to the school or fund student scholarships, he said. One president, William Harvey of Hampton University in Virginia, gave more than $1 million to his college this year to increase the pay rate of full-time, low-wage employees.
However, there are systemic problems in the way university employees are paid throughout the country, said Tierney. For example, most college presidents are more concerned with keeping top faculty happy for prestige reasons. These are the employees who often see raises, said Tierney, not the low-paid service workers who empty wastebaskets or cook dorm hall dinners.
This becomes especially problematic in states such as California and in cities with high costs of living, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. Although Gov. Jerry Brown has approved a minimum wage increase in California, it’s being implemented at a snail’s pace, said Tierney. It is scheduled to be bumped up to $9 in 2014 and $10 in 2016.
“What happens in California is everything’s legal, so the people who are working for the UC or the CSU or my own institution, they get paid a legal salary, but the minimum wage is so paltry right now that it makes it very difficult for individuals to have a living wage,” said Tierney.
Many universities have sidestepped the politics of minimum wage pay and avoided responsibility by outsourcing some of their lowest-paid positions. College executives often set up contracts with private companies to fill certain campus jobs, such as janitorial work or food service, said Tierney. By opting for outside agencies instead of in-house workers, the schools often save a significant amount of money—and protect themselves from criticism or pesky unionization threats.
In 2012, Texas A&M University outsourced more than 1,500 landscaping, maintenance, and dining service jobs, according to The Daily Texan. And in 2013, the University of Texas considered proposals to contract out campus dining, housing, and parking services, which they claimed could save the school more than $490 million over the next decade.
While outsourcing may save the universities money, it comes at a cost. These new private workers are less invested in the school and often, the well-being of its students, The Guardian reports. Universities also end up having less control over the training and development of these contracted workers, which can affect their performance on campus.
Tierney maintains that the issue is much larger than college politics. It’s about the widening gap between the rich and the poor throughout the country, in all professions.
“Universities need to be fountainheads for change,” said Tierney. “They need to not mirror the worst tendencies in societies.”
• Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.