Why University Presidents’ Pay Is a Communications Matter

Not many people leave money on the table in negotiations, whether it’s $62 (the amount that happened to be in my wallet) or a couple of hundred thousand as is the case for Gregory Fenves, President of the University of Texas Austin

I don’t know many people who would turn down more money in favor of a lower salary. That is exactly what took place at the University of Texas Austin when Gregory Fenves turned down a seven-figure salary to be President of the institution, Inside Higher Ed reported. He negotiated his salary down to $750,000, a fine salary to most, but nevertheless, he left a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the table. He felt it was too much money for a public university president to earn. According to the Inside Higher Ed piece, he said: “With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature on matters important to the university.”

His colleagues noted that he was sending a message about fiscal responsibility. It certainly was a great way to apply his beliefs and practice what he preached. It garnered positive public relations and scored major points for him within the university community.

Ditto for Raymond Burse from Kentucky State University. Last year he volunteered to take a pay cut of $90,000 to help increase the wages of low-income workers, Christian Science Monitor reported.

In contrast, CNN Money noted that the average public college president earned just over $428,000 in 2014, up 7% from a year earlier. At the same time, the average annual tuition at four-year public colleges and universities increased 29%.

Not really sure why, but it seems there is more backlash about university presidents’ compensation as opposed to basketball and football coaches at different powerhouse schools who are often the highest paid university employee.

Nevertheless, in terms of university president compensation, we should not be surprised when these topics come up, whether through the external media or internal static. University presidents and other senior officials need to fully understand the different dynamics that excessive salary packages create, particularly within a public good service like higher education. It can impact the perception of a school’s brand, so university president’s pay is, among other things, a communications matter.

Few individuals would follow the positive examples of the two university presidents noted above and reap all the related benefits. Communicators can’t change that reality, outside of making some of our colleagues and the appropriate stakeholders / governing bodies aware of such actions and their positive impact.

But we do have a role to advise on the negative ramifications too. On the topic of executive compensation and PR, Ammo Communications owner Sean Williams wrote an article on the Institute of PR several years ago in which he says: “If compensation policy were better informed by an understanding of its reputational and brand impact, the policy might be better for it. Because of our wider, more strategic view of the organization, public relations people are positioned to be a reality check and trusted counselor for this urgent issue.”

That’s a very interesting point. It’s obviously a very touchy issue: who wants to tell their boss that they are overpaid and it is consequently having a negative impact on the perception of the school. But as stewards of our brands from a reputational point of view, it may be necessary in certain circumstances that we muster up the courage to tackle such an issue.

In addition, we must advocate for policies and activities that demonstrate how our institutions are helping individuals across different income levels and serve the public good. As a follow-up, we then need to tell that story in a genuine and compelling way.

Certainly the topic of leadership’s pay will continue to be on the radar of many higher education critics and the general public to a certain extent. Therefore, as communicators, it needs to be on our radars as well.