UNC President Search is California Dreamin’

There’s an old North Carolina joke about bad ideas in California taking 10 years to arrive here. But one seems to be making record time. Exponential salary growth for public-university executives has the UNC president search committee California dreamin’.

Readers will recall that last year Marye Anne Fox, then chancellor of North Carolina State University, left Raleigh to take the same position at the University of California at San Diego. The West Coast school had offered Fox $102,000 a year more than N.C. State paid her. Fox was making $248,000 a year here; she picked up $350,000 in San Diego.

Naturally, the folks at N.C. State were apoplectic. Our chancellor salary isn’t competitive! they fretted. But before Fox left, the annual salaries at UCSD and NCSU were quite similar. UCSD paid its former chancellor only about $30,000 more than NCSU paid Fox. That’s only about 12 percent higher. It was only when UCSD wanted another chancellor that it bumped the position’s annual salary up another seventy large.

About that same time the UC system named UC-Santa Cruz Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood as the new system provost – and gave him $100,000 more a year than his immediate predecessor. The San Francisco Chronicle of April 22, 2004, said this new trend could start the “domino effect” of boosting top administrators¹ salaries even during UC¹s “most severe budget shortfall in years.”

Frankly, this was one California fad we could have done without. Nevertheless, this month the committee seeking a new UNC president announced that it would offer an annual salary range of $350,000 to as much as $450,000 – significantly higher than what departing president Molly C. Broad receives ($312,000). And on July 17, News & Observer reporters Jane Stancill and David Raynor documented several executive positions within the UNC system that, through recent hires, saw annual salary increases in the tens of thousands of dollars. Just at UNC-Chapel Hill, those included $58,000 more for a new dean, $30,00 more for a new university librarian, $40,000 more for a new vice chancellor for student affairs, and a proposed $40,000 more for a new law school dean.

Stancill and Raynor reported “there are already more than 2,200 state and University of North Carolina system employees who are paid more than $100,000 in state money a year.” Furthermore, “more than two-thirds of them work at the universities.”

Not long ago UNC-Chapel Hill required all incoming freshmen to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Marxist screed decrying poor people being “Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.” To go by the author’s tone, you’d think one of the biggest problems facing the poor is having to live and work around all those icky poor people, but that’s beside the point. Bear in mind that UNC salaries are paid for North Carolina’s taxpayers, most of whom earn less in a year than, for example, a one-year increase allotted the position of vice chancellor of student affairs. But if UNC folks need a nickel & dimes analysis, let’s give it to them.

A salary of $450,000 for a new president at UNC works out – if you try to split the distribution as equally as possible – into three million nickels and dimes apiece. It’s also nearly a million more of each denomination (920,000, to be exact) than Broad is making right now. Not exactly spare change.

Another way to look at it is this. The average income tax liability of each North Carolinian was $848.94 in 2004, according to the U.S. Census. So about 368 North Carolinians work exclusively to pay for Molly Broad’s services to UNC. It also means the UNC committee wants to force up to 162 more North Carolinians to devote their income-tax liability exclusively to the UNC president’s salary.

Add those to the countless hundreds of people already forced into paying jacked-up executive salaries at UNC, and you’ve got a trend here every bit as ugly as kids trying to walk with their pants buckled around their knees and their undershorts jacked way up to wedgie level. Thanks but no thanks, California.

Jon Sanders (jsanders@popecenter.org) is a policy analyst with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.