Thursday, January 14, 2010

A University President on Commission

The Miami Herald reported on the latest thing in executive compensation for leaders of academia (and academic medicine):
Florida State University's new president will have a larger salary than his predecessor, T.K. Wetherell, and stands to make even more in bonuses as a reward for big-time fundraising.

FSU trustees chairman Jim Smith confirmed Monday that Eric Barron has signed a contract that includes a base salary of $395,000 a year in state and private dollars, plus the chance to earn annual bonuses of $100,000 for every $100 million in private donations raised. He'll also get free housing and a car, Smith said, as well as a retention bonus of $200,000 after a few years.

Housing and car allowances have become standard fare for university president contracts, and in recent years Florida's university presidents have ranked among the top in the country for salary and compensation packages. But the bonus provision in Barron's five-year contract is a signal that the trustees want to see FSU's $447-million endowment grow by $1 billion over the next five years.

'We said $1 billion in five years, and we're serious about that,' Smith said Monday. FSU's trustees gave him the authority to negotiate with Barron, 58, and sign a contract.

Note that Florida State University is the parent institution for the Florida State University College of Medicine.

We have all heard jokes that university presidents now need to spend more time fund raising than doing anything else. Also, we have all heard the phase "no margin, no mission" too many times. However, in this case, the search for margin seems to have completely trumped the mission. As the article implied, I have not previously heard of a university president who gets bonuses only according to how much money he or she raises. I also have not previously heard of such bonuses being based simply on a percentage of the money raised. Thus effectively, the new president is being paid on commission, the commissions being based purely on fund-raising.

The problems are obvious.  First, structuring a bonus so that it is only a function of fund-raising raises fund-raising above upholding the university's mission.  Yet the board of the university has a duty of obedience, which  "requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization."  Making the university president's bonus solely dependent on the dollar amount of funds raised would seem to violate that duty.

Second, structuring a bonus so that it is only a function of fund-raising suggests that where or how the funds are raised is no longer important.  Fund-raising done wrong can lead to conflicts of interest, obligations to unsavory people, or other ethical or legal issues.  Yet the proposed bonus would apparently be paid according to the amount paid, no matter what.

Perhaps in this era of "greed is good," such a brutal reminder that academics are now expected to care more about revenue that teaching and research should not be a surprise.  But if the only incentive the university president has is fund-raising, what sort of academic institution do we expect will result?


Anonymous said...

Commissions for fundraising are considered unethical by almost every professional fundraising group.

Cetamua said...

The problem of corporate governance has become so bad that an excellent book (Money For Nothing) has been published on this very topic.

Here is Barry Ritholz (of "Bailout Nation" and THe Big Picture blog fame) take on it:

The whole situation is far form pretty, to say the very least.