Bonus-happy regents reign

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Next year, the economy will likely continue to stink, and university budget cuts will remain a topic of discussion. But, in a new development, each of the UT System’s 15 presidents will be eligible for an up to 15 percent bonus in addition to his or her regular, annual salary. Those salaries range from $300,000, paid to President Robert Nelsen at UT Pan American, to the $667,000, paid to President William Powers Jr. here at UT-Austin. The UT Regents, who approved the new bonus policy in a meeting last week, will reward the university presidents who boost donations and graduation rates.

The Regents’ approval means the bonus policy will go into effect but on which terms is not clear. Maybe the distribution of the bonuses will be fair and unbiased. But too much room for subjective passing of money exists to be sure.

The objectives now cited as part of the proposed bonus program already fall under a university president’s job description. Moreover, the Regents have publicly touted the same objectives in recent months. If a president doesn’t raise graduation rates or donation figures, he or she won’t stay in the same position for very long, much less receive a salary raise. Powers committed to raising the incoming freshman class’ four-year graduation rate almost 20 percentage points, to 70 percent, months before the proposed incentive plan was even announced.

Recognizing that standards and goals vary widely across the UT System, the Board plans to establish individual criteria for each president. Seemingly thoughtful, this plan could possibly lead to unfair evaluations based on the Regents’ biases. Evidence of tension between the Board of Regents and Powers’ administration emerges weekly, and allowing the Regents to evaluate our president based on their own standards seems about as reasonable as asking a chemical engineering professor to critique an English major’s thesis.

Even the Regents’ objectives may prove contradictory. The new incentive policy treats as normal the possibility that a system president can cut a university budget, strengthen research and increase four-year graduation rates, and all in time to go home for dinner.

If we learned anything from May’s scare about Powers’ job security, it’s that the affordability provided by a “degree factory” institution is incompatible with the administration’s goal of increasing UT’s international prestige by attracting top faculty members who often expect to spend more time researching and less time teaching.

News briefs noted the new policy creates incentive-based bonuses more characteristic of the private sector than of the public. Here at UT, there are audible murmurs of the the corporatization of higher education, which spells the end of the teaching and research missions developed in the last century. Senate of College Councils President Michael Morton shares this view. “Higher education in my opinion is not something that should be run in a capitalistic manner where the focus is on profit,” he said in response to the new policy.

While we all hope that the incentive-based bonuses will, as the Board of Regents promises, improve the quality of education throughout the UT system and increase administrative efficiency, we must watch carefully for signs of bias. The rocky history of Powers and the Regents provides a particularly dramatic illustration of the dilemma that all administrators face; they must balance concerns about efficiency and affordability with the overarching goal of providing a meaningful and valuable educational experience for students.