Columns, Opinion

Cutting the president’s salary is not the answer

The president of our university earns more than anyone else at our university.

In the university’s current financial climate, it is understandable that a little more attention has been given to that fact. The attention has become more prevalent and more open.

It is also a bit misguided.

At the student forum held on April 3, a student asked the president about his salary.

“You talk about making hard decisions,” she said. “I just want to point out that the president at the Missouri State University just took a pay cut, but I understand that you’re actually getting a 4 percent raise. I’m just curious; what kind of administrative pay cuts can we expect in the following semester?”

The question was followed by applause. It is impossible to tell why people clapped. Maybe they agreed with the sentiment behind the question. Maybe they admired someone for directly asking the president about his salary. Maybe they got caught in the herd mentality and simply began clapping because the people around them were.

That particular question, however, is misleading.

UCM President Chuck Ambrose did get a $25,000 raise in his base salary in 2016. It was actually about an 8 percent raise, but it has not been increased since.

According to the 2017 President’s/Chancellor’s Compensation Survey published by the Missouri Department of Higher Education, only Truman State University reported a decrease in salary for its president from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017. However, it was not a salary decrease for an individual; a new president was hired for fiscal year 2017 at a lower salary.

Clif Smart, the president of MSU, did not take a pay cut.

According to a story on, Smart received a $25,000 raise for the 2016-17 year, or about 8 percent. He and his wife donated the value of the raise back to the university to create a scholarship for first-generation college students.

According to the compensation survey, counting the raise, Smart’s annual base salary is $334,981. Not counting the raise he donates, his base salary is $309,981.

His donation is admirable and generous.

It does not make him Robin Hood, nor should it be used to paint every other university president in the state of Missouri as Prince John.

Ambrose has said at each of the forums there may come a time when decreasing administrative salaries will be necessary. However, he said the university is not there yet.

Apart from what a gesture like voluntarily reducing administrative salaries may do for public perception or community morale in the short term, consideration must be given to the effects of such a decision both in the short and long term.

The administration is looking to pare between $16 million and $20 million from the budget for fiscal year 2019. If Ambrose gave up his salary next year – his entire $322,550 salary – it would do almost nothing.

“We would need about 50 people to give up that salary,” said Roger Best, interim executive vice president and COO.

The catch is there are not 50 people on campus who earn that salary.

Best said consideration must also be given to devaluing positions. Over time, if the president takes less in salary, the institution will become acclimated to operating with a president at that salary.

If the presidency comes open somewhere down the road, the salary will be something that comes up. Regardless if it’s the applicant’s first question or their 50th, it will come up.

I asked Best what would happen if the published salary of the president is too low for too long. His answer was simple.

“You won’t get qualified applicants,” he said.

Mike Godard, interim provost-chief learning officer, said adjusting one salary could require the adjustment of everyone’s salary.

It makes sense: How long would you be willing to be out-earned by your subordinates? Would you even take a job knowing you would be out-earned by your subordinates?

Godard also said compensation needs to represent the increase in responsibilities that come with a position or it will become difficult to keep people in that position.

“I’m a tenured professor here,” he said. “At a certain salary, I could go back to teaching classes. I could teach a class in the summer and make more, and I wouldn’t have to worry about some of what I worry about now.”

Administrative positions can be taxing and, regardless of salary, people have given them up voluntarily.

As evidence, one needn’t look further than SMU, where Smart became the university’s interim president in 2011 following the resignation of James Cofer who, according to a 2012 report on, left the presidency to return to teaching.

Finally, taking shots at a person’s compensation is a dangerous thing to do.

Ambrose was hired by the board of governors and his contract was mutually agreed upon by him and by the board. Simply put, they offered him compensation based on what they thought his abilities as the president were worth and he agreed.

Everyone who works on this campus made the same agreement.

If he gives up a bit, should everyone else? Where do we draw the line as to who is fairly compensated and who is compensated enough to start giving some up? Should we look at his career and the sacrifices he’s made along the way because of his aspirations and decide what they’re worth?

Years from now, if our careers yield similar fruits, will we be as inclined to deem them unnecessary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *