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Are elite salaries a necessary evil of elite universities?

Published: September 13, 2013
Section: Opinions


In light of President Obama’s new plan to recommit to higher education by ranking universities according to graduation rate, tuition and student debt, is it hypocritical for President Frederick Lawrence to ask the government to lower the cost for education while simultaneously accepting a $600,000 salary?

Lawrence recently claimed that a college education creates numerous opportunities for
America, but Obama’s rating system may not be fair for a school with a mission statement such as Brandeis’. Though we perform well in all criteria, Brandeis has a strong focus on social justice and public service, which may not lead to high-paying professions but do provide important services to the community.

The media often claims that the cost of tuition has soared, but the truth is, according to College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, the price has only risen moderately when taking inflation, scholarships and grants into account. Colleges have shifted money around, making the wealthier pay more and lower-income students pay less; just the idea that the president is making so much money, however, sends the message that he is not working in the team effort, that he does not understand the students’ financial woes. That’s like a CEO who makes millions but outsources his company to Asia where the employees make $1 a day.

University presidents cannot compete at all with football coaches or CEOs of comparably sized for-profit businesses whose salaries can soar into the multi-millions. How much, though, does Lawrence actually do? The question to put forth when evaluating a cost is not the actual sum of money but rather the value of the good or service. If a pencil costs $10, it would be a ridiculous waste of money; but if a nice meal at a restaurant cost the same, it would be a great deal, not only for the quantity of the product, but also for the quality provided. So, the question is, are we getting our money’s worth, paying $600,000 to have Lawrence here at Brandeis?

The president’s job is not an average 40-hour work week, but rather a 24/7 role, answering calls in the middle of the night and traveling to meetings, conferences and events on evenings and weekends. He supervises administration and oversees the general status of the university, not only to answer to the board of trustees, but also to promote new goals and initiatives.

The president is the face of the university and the one executing the school’s mission statement, deciding to promote athletics, different programs, allocate money to environmental and sustainability concerns, expand research facilities, hire faculty, execute student services and push campus initiatives.

Beside all of these duties, Lawrence also has to find some way to pay for all of this through fundraising. Private universities do not receive the same state subsidies that public schools do, so he must meet with businesses, lawmakers and other leaders in order not only to balance a stable budget, but also to make an impact on the school. Lawrence must also maintain Brandeis’ prestigious reputation in order to push for more money.

Lawrence attended Williams College for his bachelor’s degree followed by a law degree at Yale University. He then worked as a clerk and an assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, followed by a teaching career at Boston University’s School of Law as well as a position as dean. He was also a professor and dean at George Washington University, leading the school’s strongest five classes through the law school history, leading five effective years of fundraising through economic recession while expanding financial aid, hiring new faculty and expanding facilities.

In order to hold onto Lawrence—a scholar, published writer and attorney—they needed to offer him a high salary. By providing a lower salary, Brandeis might save a few hundred thousand dollars but simultaneously lose a million dollars in fundraising along with a successful leader who knows how to lead a school’s facilities, programs, reputation, faculty, academics, athletics, finances and more. Lawrence may cost a lot of money, but he’s worth it in the long run because his efficient administrative skills actually save Brandeis money overall and help keep this school running effectively and successfully.