Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Plaintive Cry from Vice-Chancellors

My Vice-Chancellor, Geoffrey Copland, wrote a plaintive plea for the remuneration of vice-chancellors. It seems he was piqued by an article in the Guardian that said VCs salaries had risen by around 25% in the last three years. And this was said in the midst of a pay dispute between university academics, who haven't had anything like that kind of rise in the last three years despite what university employers say, and vice-chancellors themselves who sit on the other side of the bargaining table. It was unclear from his article if he was upset by the fact that the information about VCs' raises had become public at an inopportune time or that VCs were inviolate.

Geoffrey Copland talks of the remuneration committee that decides his salary rise--he says it isn't cosy and indeed he has to leave the room when they deliberate. (By the way all the members of the remuneration committee are chosen not to rock the boat.) The process is transparent. Now to whom it is transparent is not clear. It's quite murky. The stakeholders within the university, and I include myself in that category, aren't allowed to see transcripts or minutes of these meetings. So what goes on? The crux of his plea is that the committees are composed of people from outside, business people, not a bunch of warmed over academics sipping sherry gently intoning "For he's a jolly good fellow..." If vice-chancellors are rated on performance (of what?), I know of no cases where their earnings have declined instead of risen.

The impression he gives is that it's like doing a star turn on the "Dragon's Den". Any moment on of the high-flying entrepreneurs is going to say, "Nah, Geoffrey, it stinks. Where's the deliverables? Education? It's a mug's game. I'm not going to invest in your outfit." The chorus of "Nah" grows as a despondent Geoffrey leaves the room. One can imagine the announcer quizzing him afterwards, "Geoffrey, did you think they would give you such a rough ride?" "No, Evan, I thought my business plan was first-rate." "So, Geoffrey, without the money what will you do?" A depressed VC leaves the loft as the next one gambols through the door pink with expectancy.

Of course it is not like that. In the course of studying the interactions of professionals and bureaucrats, I've been interviewing the people who really know about university management. What do they say? The first thing is that making vice-chancellors' salaries public introduced competition among remuneration committees to see which university could have the highest paid VC in the league tables. These experts also give the lie to the perennial claim made on VCs' behalf that universities have got to pay high rates to attract the best people. The comparison is usually made with captains of industry. I haven't researched this thoroughly but there are only a couple of ex-captains who've switched out of industry into academia. The most notable one is Richard Sykes of Imperial College. But he secured his future income streams (including his pension) before joining Imperial.

The other vice-chancellors? They are ex-academics who for one reason or another have decided that the pursuit of the intellectual life is no longer for them. They prefer administration, endless committee meetings, the sussuration of paper being moved around in an infinite bureaucratic ether. It almost makes Kafka's world appear benign.

There is another reason, which I learned early on in American academia. If an academic wants a substantial pay rise, she becomes an administrator for several years. But in the US most administrators return to their academic lives, unless they have desires to become university presidents. Here in the UK we firmly believe in the Peter Principle and appoint them as administrators permanently. As they rise through the ranks of dean, PVC, deputy this and that, their minds grow forgetful. It's like leaving childhood because that's what being an academic seemed like to them--a golden age before entering the adulthood of university administration where you grit your teeth and be tough. Watching reruns of "Rambo" helps apparently.

Let me finish on a final point of distinction between the US and UK academy. If you want to succeed as the president of a good university, you better hone those fund raising skills because that is what the Board of Trustees will be looking at. That's one of the reasons why Harvard and others have big endowments. Twenty-six billion dollars gives you clout. Now let's turn to the English vice-chancellor: fund raising? What's that? If a VC keeps the books in order from year to year, he's doing well. Apart from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which have courted their alumni well, British vice-chancellors don't know how to raise funds. Geoffrey Copland doesn't do it and that's the norm.

How can you tell when a vice-chancellor is going to retire? In their final year they get a boost in their salaries which bumps up their pensions by a considerable amount. So, if you see the figure rise by 25% in one year instead of three, it's time to say "Ciao".

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