Oxymoron or Farce: The highest paid executive in Public Higher Education leads a statewide study onincreasing affordability in Ohio



On Monday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Governor Kasich has appointed Gordon Gee, President Emeritus of Ohio State University, to “lead a study looking for ways to make college more affordable and relevant for Ohio students.”

More specifically, Gee will “spend the next year working with other college presidents, K-12 education leaders, and the business community to come up with ways to tie education to potential jobs and to find ways that students can save money while they work toward those goals . . . ‘Quality and cost are the biggest issues facing students who are struggling with increasing tuition and fees, rising student-loan debt, and stagnant graduation rates,’ Kasich said. ‘If the status quo remains in effect for higher education over time it will crumble, and I’ll tell you why: It costs too darn much to go to school,’ he said. ‘Mothers and fathers and students—young men and young women— they’re getting tired of this.’”

Indeed, Kasich “warned that if Ohio’s schools do nothing to prove their value, they will become like the churches in Europe: big buildings with few people as students increasingly turn to less affordable options such as online colleges. . . . Innovation will take a new way of thinking, Kasich said. Gee is the best person to lead the effort because of his experience leading five colleges.”

“’It is an opportunity for the state to fulfill its place in this 21st century,’ Gee added. ‘We’re not the rust belt; we’re the knowledge belt. We’re the place in which knowledge, cooperation, collaboration and opportunity will now exist.’”

The goals here are certainly admirable: increased affordability means increased access and increased graduation rates, since some students are clearly not completing degrees because of issues related to cost and debt burden.

But there are three major problems with this proposal.

First, there is no indication that faculty and students will be not just involved in the discussion but major contributors to the discussion.

Second, absent those voices, the emphasis is likely to be on technological gimmicks such as MOOCs. It’s almost impossible to not notice that “innovation” is juxtaposed with “online colleges.” But several of the premises underlying that juxtaposition are completely faulty. The online for-profit institutions have suffered a major contraction, are more expensive than most public colleges and universities, and have abysmal completion rates.

Last but not least, absent those voices, almost no attention is likely to be paid to administrative bloat, which, along with dramatic reductions in state subsidy, has been the major cost driver in Ohio, as in many other states. All of the presidents of Ohio’s large public universities rank in the top 100 nationally in terms of their personal compensation, and their salaries reflect broader increases in administrative compensation and broader increases in the number of upper administrative positions and administrative support staff. I think that our public universities each have much to recommend them to students, but I doubt that they will all appear in the top 100 on any other list of public universities.

In fact, Gordon Gee’s career has become the most singular illustration of administrative bloat. Despite having been pushed toward “retirement” by the relentless news coverage of his off-the-cuff, derogatory remarks about other institutions against which Ohio State competes in football and other major sports, he is now earning almost $1.2 million annually, more in base salary as President Emeritus than he did as President. Because his successor as President will be working literally in his shadow, paying that President less than Gee is now earning would seem tantamount to making his or her position untenable. So it is very probable that Ohio State will soon boast the two most highly paid executives in public higher education.

So one has to assume that this committee will be recommending ways to further reduce instructional costs. But if one is looking for a median illustration of those costs, my institution, Wright State University, can provide one. The salaries of our tenured and tenure-track faculty constitute about 10% of the university’s $400 million-plus annual budget. Our benefits constitute just over another 3% of the budget. And the total compensation received by all faculty, including full-time non-tenure eligible faculty and part-time adjunct faculty, constitutes about 22% of the annual budget.

Clearly, reducing instructional costs below these levels brings into question whether the institution’s mission can continue to be said to be educational. But, perhaps that is precisely the point: perhaps, our professionalized administrative class is preparing us for some sort of post-educational future.