First Vedder and Now This

I have been a faculty member at Wright State University since 1990. It has generally been a very nice place to work. Our AAUP chapter/bargaining unit has been a strong one almost since its establishment, and although we have not always regarded our administration’s decision-making as enlightened, the truth is that, especially in this corporatized era and in comparison to the administrations at other public universities even within Ohio, our administration has generally tried to do what is best for our institution and to treat our faculty and staff fairly and respectfully. As a result, the university has succeeded in improving its academic reputation while remaining one of several “open-enrollment” institutions in Ohio. Programs across the seven undergraduate colleges have achieved regional and even some national recognitions, and the university now ranks third among Ohio’s public universities in terms of total research dollars generated, trailing only the Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. We do not do well, however, in most national rankings because our continued open-enrollment mission skews a number of statistics, in particular graduation rates. But, among students with G.P.A.’s sufficient to be admitted into degree programs, our graduation rates are actually somewhat higher than those at most public universities. And the university is making intensified efforts to insure that students who are underprepared receive academic assistance and placement that will increase their chances of academic success. All this has occurred while our tuition has remained among the lowest in the state.

If this sounds as if I am presenting a shameless advertisement for my institution, I can justify that effort as something of a salvage mission.

Writing for Bloomberg News, Richard Vedder, a nationally recognized economist retired from Ohio University, addresses the recent annual report on administrative salaries published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In “How to Tell if College Presidents Are Overpaid,” he focuses rather unkindly on Wright State University and our president’s salary: “There appears to be neither rhyme nor reason for vast differences in presidential pay. David R. Hopkins, the president of Wright State University–an unremarkable commuter school ranked rather poorly in major-magazine rankings–makes far more than the presidents of the much larger, and vastly more prestigious, University of California at Berkeley, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or the University of Wisconsin.” He then added a comment on our low graduation rate.

After reading that paragraph, one of my colleagues dryly opined that he wished to post a comment to the article pointing out that Wright State University is no longer, strictly speaking, a “commuter school”—that is, the percentage of our students living in on-campus and immediately off-campus housing has grown dramatically.

In truth, Vedder’s analysis misses or simply isn’t concerned with all sorts of nuances. Indeed, given the reduction in access to elite public universities in just about every state in the country, Wright State’s continuing adherence to its mission as an open-enrollment institution is something to be proud of, rather than to be apologetic for. But beyond the academic factors that I have already discussed, Vedder is also focusing on Dr. Hopkins’ total compensation. The president’s actual base salary is not quite so remarkably high. And Vedder also ignores the fact that Dr. Hopkins is now in his seventh year as our president and with longevity comes a certain compounding in increases in compensation. (Anyone who knows me at all will recognize that these last three sentences must be read, as they were written, with a certain winking irony.)

I want to be clear that I am not offering any sort of justification for administrative bloat, but I do think that to focus on individual comparisons risks losing the point that, in academia as in corporate America, there is an increasing concentration of earnings at the top. Moreover, presidential compensation is a symptom of a much broader diversion of institutional resources into increasingly complex and vaguely purposeful administrative hierarchies.

In fairness to Vedder, he does include the following paragraph on his own institution and its president’s compensation: “The president of my college (Ohio University), Roderick McDavis, has seen the school’s US News & World Report ranking fall considerably in his tenure of almost nine years. But he made more in 2011-12 than Berkeley’s Robert J. Birgeneau, who stepped down in 2012 after nine years as chancellor of the school ranked first in the US News list of public universities.”

Nonetheless, because I can be just as snarky as Vedder, I feel obligated to point out that perhaps Vedder is focusing on administrative bloat to deflect some of the recent media attention to his own sources of income.

A recent story from the Associated Press begins: “A Ohio Statehouse witness on tax and economic issues who’s relied upon for his objectivity draws a hefty stipend from a conservative trust fund.”  It turns out that for a number of years, Vedder has been paid an annual stipend of $150,000 by Donors Trust, which distributes $30 million per year to such groups as the Cato Institute, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Although Vedder has asserted that “his affiliation with the organization hasn’t prevented him from presenting dispassionate testimony,” he has repeatedly testified as a “a star witness on tax code changes proposed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, and his research was cited again by backers of right-to-work legislation introduced [in the Ohio House].” I think that the choice of the word “dispassionate,” especially if it was Vetter’s, is of special interest; it seems synonymous with “objective,” but it’s not really the same thing at all. When asked about Vedder’s receiving hefty annual stipends from Donors Trust, a spokesman for the Kasich administration denied any awareness of that arrangement. (Insert your own derisive laughter here.)

None of this negates anything that Vedder has said specifically about Wright State or our president’s compensation, but it does suggest that he has a very defined political agenda that not only informs his opinions on important issues but also may not be readily apparent to those listening to—or reading—those opinions.

This is a cheap shot, I know, but I will be more up-front than Vedder and admit that his advocacy of right-to-work legislation bothers me much more than anything else. If he were to argue that that testimony was not bought and paid for, I would say simply that I don’t believe him.

In any case, as if this negative media attention to my institution were not enough, David Freeman recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “Gustave Whitehead’s First Flight Beat Wright Brothers’ by Years, Aviation Expert Contends.”

On the plus side, “Gustave Whitehead University” does have a certain elitist cache.

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