The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
In yesterday’s post, I highlighted the disproportion between the revenues being generated by major college football programs and the value of the scholarships provided to the 85 players per team permitted to receive scholarships.
If the compensation being received by the players seems disproportionately low, that being received by the coaches heading major programs seems disproportionately high—if not in comparison to the revenues being generated, certainly in comparison to what the players are receiving and in comparison to what anyone else in the universities is receiving, including the very generously compensated presidents. (Let me be clear: I am not at all suggesting that the presidents’ compensation be increased to what the coaches are receiving. I am, in effect, raising the issue of why the coaches’ salaries have gotten so high, and I am not at all questioning why the presidents’ salaries are not even higher than what they already are.)
Here are the twenty-five most highly paid college football coaches:
25. Steve Sarkisian, Washington: $2.58 million. (Just hired by USC, Sarkisian will be moving up in next year’s rankings.)
24. Dana Holgersen, West Virginia: $2.63 million.
23. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: $2.70 million.
22. Will Muschamp, Florida: $2.73 million.
21. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: $2.75 million.
20. Gary Pinkel, Missouri: $2.80 million.
19. Bill Snyder, Kansas State: $2.80 million.
18. Bo Pelini, Nebraska: $2.98 million.
17. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: $3.10 million.
16. Gary Patterson, Texas Christian: $3.12 million.
15. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati: $3.12 million.
14. Bill O’Brien, Penn State: $3.28 million.
13. Mark Richt, Georgia: $3.31 million.
12. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: $3.32 million.
11. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: $3.45 million.
10. Charlie Strong, Louisville: $3.74 million.
9. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: $3.99 million.
8. Brady Hoke, Michigan: $4.15 million.
7. Les Miles, Lousiana State: $4.46 million.
6. Urban Meyer, Ohio State: $4.61 million.
5. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: $4.77 million.
4. Butch Jones, Tennessee: $4.86 million.
3. Bret Bielema, Arkansas: $5.16 million.
2. Mack Brown, Texas: $5.45 million.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama: $5.55 million.
I imagine that some ardent defenders of intercollegiate athletics may rush to argue that these salaries are justified because of the immense revenues that the programs produce. But, beyond the issue of how the athletes themselves are being compensated and the inconsistent arguments used to justify the very different levels of compensation for the athletes and their coaches, that argument avoids what I think is the core issue: why are universities supporting athletic programs on this scale, especially since they are facing unprecedented budgetary constraints in so many other areas?
That issue may not actually be obvious, never mind acute, at most of the universities on this list, which are the flagship public universities in their states and therefore likely have the largest enrollments, the highest amount of funded research, and the largest endowments among the institutions in their states. But at the mid-level institutions whose administrators and trustees are chasing the dream of developing a nationally ranked program in at least one major sport, the issue is almost always very acute.
At those mid-level institutions, there is a much more direct choice being made between the funding of intercollegiate athletics and the funding of academic programs. Specifically, the increasingly unconstrained funding of intercollegiate athletics directly threatens academic programs that are never going to attract large enrollments but that are integral to the academic legitimacy of any university. Many of the most frequently targeted academic programs are in the humanities, but there are also many under-enrolled and more costly programs in the STEM fields as well. And if any academic programs are to be severely contracted or eliminated because they are not fiscally self-sustaining, then any justification for expenditures on intercollegiate athletics at most mid-level institutions collapses because those programs not only do not pay for themselves, but they almost always require major institutional subsidies.
The salaries of the coaches, like the salaries of the university presidents’, are the proverbial tips of the iceberg in terms of the inherent issues related to allocations of funding and institutional priorities. However out of proportion the compensation received by those at the top may be, it inevitably puts upward pressure on the compensation of their immediate subordinates and perhaps even the subordinates of those subordinates.
But at some level, someone’s compensation suffers in order to sustain the inflated compensation. If the athletes are clearly the economically exploited group in intercollegiate athletics, then adjunct faculty are just as clearly the exploited group in our broader universities.
It seems to me that there is very clearly an ethical issue whenever one takes great pains to justify both clearly excessive salaries and clearly exploitative salaries in almost the same breath. One cannot ethically or even credibly argue that extravagant salaries don’t matter because they are singularly high and represent an insignificant percentage of total institutional expenditures and also argue that exploitative salaries for a large group are unfortunate but unavoidable because the very narrow margins in the budget simply don’t allow for those employees to be fairly compensated. This is the same argument used to justify low wages in retail and fast-food restaurants: the unsustainability of paying much higher wages to the exploited group is used to justify the decision to deny any increase in wages, thus suggesting that any increase will undermine profitability, rather than just slightly reduce the proportion of those profits going to those at the top. (In our institutions, “resources” can simply be substituted for “profits.”)
And this is why the compensation received by most full-time faculty seems to me ultimately to be a false issue in this discussion. Full-time faculty may be very well compensated in comparison to adjunct faculty, and that point is often a basis for the argument that full-time faculty are therefore grossly overpaid. But such an argument would never be applied to intercollegiate athletics–namely, that coaches’ salaries ought to be reduced until they are proportionate to the compensation being received by the athletes. In effect, attacks on exorbitant salaries are dismissed as class warfare, but, in the next breath, class warfare is being incited in order to justify exploitative salaries.
Indeed, there is much evidence that the compensation of full-time faculty has been significantly eroding while that of administrators has been significantly increasing. Moreover, as the numbers of administrators approach and even exceed the numbers of full-time faculty at most institutions, the argument that administrators are a smaller group with very distinctive skill sets that justify higher compensation has become much less convincing.
I have recently read several pieces by adjunct faculty in which they have argued that full-time faculty should be willing to give up some of their salary increases in order to provide salary increases for their adjunct colleagues. I agree with that argument in principle and in practice, and I think that taking such a position would amount to a strong statement of solidarity. But, I also think that both groups of faculty need to be making the argument that instruction, the core mission of our institutions, needs to be much more of a priority in terms of the allocation of institutional resources. If we don’t win that argument, any solidarity that we achieve is going to be kind of a moot point.