Most of the highest paid state employees can be found in Louisiana’s colleges and universities. But are they worth what they’re being paid?
By Jeremy Alford
July 26, 2012
There are 185 state employees being paid annual salaries of $200,000 or more, based on Louisiana’s public payroll from early June. Of that head count, 149 of them are employed in some kind of educational role, chiefly higher education with a handful from the state Department of Education and related agencies.
While one might argue that education should be Louisiana’s top priority, and thus at the top of the pay scale, half of the top 10 highest paid state employees are connected to collegiate athletics, not the classroom. Moreover, the top three play important roles with LSU’s football program. And according to BusinessCollegeSports.com, LSU’s athletic department is 12th in the nation in terms of profit, clearing $10.4 million last year, so these salaries do not come as a surprise in the world of big-time college sports.
|“We are one of the highest in the nation, and I’m not sure that’s where we should be.”
— State Rep. Simone Champagne on administrative salaries at Louisiana’s public universities
But the issue of higher education salaries has caught the attention of state Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath. She passed a resolution during this year’s regular session requesting that the Board of Regents “study executive compensation at the university system offices and boards.” The final report is due to lawmakers in early February 2013.
Champagne says the situation is more urgent than ever, especially after the Legislature was forced to address shortfalls in the state’s $25.6 billion budget. Of that amount, public post-secondary education takes up about $3 billion worth of room. What could be more telling, though, is how much is dedicated to salaries, she says.
The need for “transparency with respect to the expenditure of public funds is self-evident,” Champagne adds, and the issue has been ignored for too long. “I’ve been bringing up questions for the past few years about our system and university presidents,” she says.
Supporters rightly argue that the money helps lure qualified candidates to Louisiana. However, it’s not exactly clear that the cash is helping keep them here. John Lombardi, who was fired from his position as LSU system president in May, was making a base salary of $450,000 before his departure. He was the state’s fourth highest paid employee. LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, No. 5 on the list in early June with a $400,000 state salary, has since accepted the job of chancellor at Colorado State University.
More to the point, how do these salaries stack up nationally? A recently released survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the median base pay at 190 public research universities for chancellors and system presidents has increased 1.3 percent, from $379,000 in 2010 to $383,800 in 2011. Another survey that was completed this year by the College and University Professional Association, based on responses from 1,240 institutions, found that the average salary of a CEO of a system or district is $326,250.
As for university presidents, the Southern Regional Education Board’s “Fact Book on Higher Education for 2011” reports that the average annual salary for a CEO at a single institution in a Southern state is $299,796. Meanwhile, the survey conducted by the CUPA found that the average salary of a CEO at a single institution among the 1,240 it analyzed is $255,849.
The base pay of the remaining university and system presidents in the top 100 list of state employees can be found above and below this salary window. Just consider the following, from the Civil Service list released to us in early June:
• University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett, $375,000 (announced in mid-July that he will retire this fall)
• Southern University System President Ronald Mason, $374,000
• Louisiana Tech President Daniel Reneau, $350,000
• University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joe Savoie, $350,000
• University of New Orleans President Peter J. Fos, $325,000
• University of Louisiana at Monroe President Nick Bruno, $252,886
• Southeastern Louisiana University President John Crain, $248,000
To be certain, the Louisiana Legislature isn’t alone in its skepticism. In the Sunshine State, a coalition known as “Save UF, Spend the Reserves” pushed the University of Florida this year to dip into its reserves to address budget cuts — and it’s pointing to high administrative salaries as an abuse of financial resources.
In the Golden State, the Legislative Analyst’s Office and others dropped the proverbial hammer on California State University officials recently because they tried to explain away their salaries with some whacky comparisons: like the pay at Temple University in Pennsylvania versus the salaries at San Diego State University. Up near the Twin Cities, the University of Minnesota has been considering giving its governing board greater oversight of executive and administrative salaries.
If you want more drama on this front from back home, look no further than The Daily Reveille, LSU’s student-run newspaper that continues, like it has done for generations, to pump out occasional stories that are mainstream-worthy. In a story published this past spring, reporter Xerxes A. Wilson uncovered how the LSU System Office is paying more than $650,000 in salaries to six administrators who are also receiving state retirement pensions. It’s perfectly legal, thanks to a loophole long ago created by the Legislature.
Here’s more: “On the LSU Baton Rouge campus itself, some 50 employees with previous retirement history collect salaries ranging from $4,800 to $165,000. In total, the campus pays about $2.4 million in salaries to employees who have previously retired, according to the same records provided by the System Office. This double-dipping, as it is known, is legal and fairly common within state government, particularly in higher education. In some cases, it can even become triple-dipping.”
And that brings us back to Champagne, the author of House Concurrent Resolution 92 — the only instrument filed during this year’s regular session addressing university salaries. The measure made it through the House and Senate without an opposing vote. It’s an indication that the Legislature may be ready to take a closer look at the issue.
During a time when budget cuts, midyear reductions and fiscal year deficits are becoming the norm, Champagne says it’s time that the state take this issue more seriously. After all, just a cursory glance at available comparison surveys reveals a trend that’s worth questioning. “We are one of the highest in the nation,” she pleaded with lawmakers in the recent session, “and I’m not sure that’s where we should be.”