A member of Seattle’s City Council recently cut short her tenure on that body to take another job.
That a politician is moving on from a largely undistinguished career (she wasn’t planning to run for re-election anyway) isn’t notable except for where that new job is, what the job title is and how much she’s being paid for it.
The place of employment: The University of Washington. The job: director of regional and community relations.
The annual salary: $155,000.
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A few points to stipulate: Salary schedules are out of whack across this country and across occupations and industries, whether it’s for corporate CEOs or professional athletes and entertainers or even comfy bureaucratic havens in academia for ex-politicos. Such is life.
Furthermore, a salary of $155,000, or even more once benefits and employer costs are included, doesn’t constitute even a rounding error for an institution the size of UW, with an annual operating budget of $6.4 billion (including the Tacoma and Bothell campuses).
But it’s not nothing, either. It’s especially not nothing when it’s on our dime, which the UW, ostensibly a state-sponsored public university, is.
And it’s not nothing when universities are complaining about how squeezed their budgets are and students and parents are complaining about how expensive college has become (especially when compared with the payback as measured by career earnings) and taxpayers are complaining about how pinched they are by various government entities competing with one another to extract more money from the citizenry — and yes, all those complaints have considerable legitimacy.
What does $155,000 a year buy you? Here’s how the UW itself describes the job: “As UW’s director of regional and community relations, (Sally) Clark will lead the university’s effort to link with surrounding neighborhoods, civic groups and local government. The Office of Regional & Community Relations works to build collaborative relationships between these groups through information sharing, and looks for new opportunities to match the UW’s academic capital with needs in the region and community.”
What might have that money been better used for? How about one more teaching position in computer sciences, a department for which there is such screaming demand from students (and the employers interested in hiring graduates of the program) that UW is pushing for a new building to accommodate it? How about an additional medical researcher at the university’s health sciences program, with the potential double-payoff of helping treat and cure diseases and producing the companies and jobs to commercialize those treatments and cures?
Cynics see the appointment as purchasing access to Seattle government should any unpleasantness in town-gown relations need to be worked out (land use and zoning). In other words, lobbying.
Whether public entities ought to have lobbyists to lobby other public entities is a subject for another day’s diatribe (if you need to make the school’s case to council or the Legislature, send the president). But the appointment of such a high-priced lobbyist sends a signal to the public that higher ed, for all of its complaining about finances, isn’t serious about dealing with costs.
To use a bit of jargon, the optics on this one aren’t good.
It’s a particularly unhelpful time to be sending such a signal, given the turmoil and upheaval over not just money but the business and educational model and structure of higher ed. Experiments abound, whether it’s Purdue’s multi-year campaign to freeze tuition or Starbucks’ decision to expand its program of tuition reimbursement for employees taking courses online through Arizona State or the continued expansion in this state of community colleges into four-year programs.
Some will change. Some won’t survive. A women’s college in Virginia is closing because of declining enrollment (at 700 students, it’s smaller than the typical American high school) and continuing losses.
Interestingly, this unhelpful signal comes at a time when, in Washington at least, complaints from the universities and those paying the bills are getting some traction. Competing budget proposals call for a tuition freeze (the House version) and even a rollback (the Senate).
There’s an even bigger business/economic development issue that is playing into those proposals. Higher ed was a convenient line item for government to slice in the recession, with schools expected to make up the reduced revenue with higher tuition, or more money from football, or more out-of-state students, or something.
That approach is getting a rethink as legislators see their constituents get priced out of college and the weakening of those schools’ ability to drive long-term local economic vitality.
So they might be excused some frustration when, in the middle of trying to get the numbers to work, the UW spends some of those precious dollars as it has. And it would be understandable if they sent a return message of their own: “Umm, guys, you aren’t exactly helping your cause here.”
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.