David Zimmerman is an outstanding scholar and, by reputation, an excellent teacher. But, even the best and the brightest among us occasionally get things very wrong.

The jump in salaries and benefits this year has caused speculation as to why college presidents earn significantly more today than in years past.

According to David Zimmerman, chair of the economics department and a participant in the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education, there are two primary reasons for the increase in salaries. “The compensation for highly competent CEOs in the private sector is very intense and more people who have been college presidents have private sector opportunities,” Zimmerman said. As a result, “there is some pressure for presidents to be compensated with salaries comparable to outside academia.”

Zimmerman said that at one time, presidents earned only two to three times what full professors earn.

Precisely which “private sector opportunities” do college presidents and senior faculty/administrators at places like Williams have outside of academia?

The short answer: very few, and almost none that look better than being a tenured college professor. How can I be so confident when I am not privy to the job offes that come flowing into the mail boxes in Hopkins Hall everyday? Simply because so few senior academics at places like Williams ever take such jobs.

To be precise, let us define our universe as the top factulty/administrators (President, Provost, Dean of the Faculty and Dean of the College or their equivalents) at the 11 NESCAC schools over the last 20 years. There are probably more than 200 smart, talented, hard-working individuals who have held these positions during this time. Virtually all have Ph.D.’s and tenure. If there really were active competition from the private sector, you would expect some of these individuals to succumb to the lures of the marketplace. Many would, of course, prefer to stay in academia, but at least a handful would jump ship each year.

How many in our sample of 200 have done so? How many senior faculty/administrators from NESCAC schools have actually left tenure behind and moved to the private sector?

Answer: None. Or, lest I be accused of rampant ignorance, I am not aware of a single such case in the last 20 years at a NESCAC school. (No one would, I think, try to cite cases like Carl Vogt or Richard Sabot as counter-examples.)

Now, surely, there must be at least one such example that I am unaware of. If so, I would like to here about it. But it is inconceivable to me that there are as many as five.

Perhaps there is a “market” for senior administrators at NESCAC-type schools. Harry Payne, for example, went from Hamilton to Williams. Neil Grabois went from Williams to Colgate.

Perhaps there is a “market” for senior executives in the private sector. In fact, I am deeply suspicious of these sorts of claims, but that is a side point.

But these two markets, whatever their successes and failures, have nothing to do with one another, other than providing a convenient smoke-screen for the apologists of run-away administrator salaries. (To be clear, I wouldn’t classify Zimmerman as an apologist. I just think that he hasn’t really thought through the arguments. Some of the other folks quoted by the Record, on the other hand . . .)

Imagine that a junior professor in the economics department came to Zimmerman and the following dialogue ensured:

Junior Professor: You need to pay me much more, at least $250,000 each per year.

Zimmerman: Why?

JP: I have “private sector opportunities,” to turn a phrase. For example, I might decide to become a Major League baseball player.

Zimmerman: But why do you think you can become a baseball player?

JP: Well, baseball players have two legs. I have two legs. Many baseball players were born in the United States. I was born in the United States. Seems there might be some “pressure” for junior economics professors to be compensated with “salaries comparable to outside academia,” i.e., those in Major League Baseball.

Zimmerman: But how many junior professors like you at other college like Williams have actually taken a job as a baseball player?

JP: Uh, none.

Zimmerman: Well how many junior professors have at least been offered such a job?

JP: Uh, none.

Zimmerman: Well, then it seems clear that the market for junior professors and the market for major league baseball players have no overlap. That is, the salaries for baseball players are irrelevant for the setting of your salary because neither you, nor any of your peers, has the option of becoming a baseball player.

JP: Well, even if I don’t have an offer for the Red Sox right now, I might still leave academia, work on my baseball skills, get picked up by a minor league team and then work my way to the majors. So, since I have the theoretical potential to be a baseball player, Williams needs to compensated me as if I were one.

Zimmerman: Good luck with that plan. Let me know how it all works out.

Although this example is somewhat absurd, it is exactly analogous to claims made by Zimmerman and others that the market for senior executives in business has any connection to the market for senior administrators/faculty among the schools in NESCAC.

Maybe there are reasons why Schapiro et al need to be paid so much. High salaries in the executive suite is not one of them.

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