September 13th, 2011

Text of Open Letter To UVM Trustees

by Philip Baruth

Last week I wrote an open letter to the UVM Trustees, stressing the need for executive compensation reform at the University, especially given the Board’s stance on downsizing those at the bottom end of the pay scale. That letter has been quoted in part here and there since then, and I thought it couldn’t hurt to have the whole text out there at this point. Feel free to quote or reprint. — PB

September 5, 2011

Dear Robert Cioffi, and the UVM Board of Trustees:

First, please excuse the public nature of this letter. It is the first we’ve ever exchanged, and in any other circumstance I would have communicated what I had to say privately. The issues at hand have become not only the public’s business, however, but the public’s pressing concern. For my own part, I find myself now in the extraordinary position of voting against a transfer of substantial taxpayer funds into the University’s endowment, and I feel that I should make my reasons clear both to my constituents and to my colleagues, so that there will be no grounds for misunderstanding.

I would match my devotion to the University of Vermont against anyone’s – Trustee, student, faculty, or staff. Having taught here for the better part of twenty years, I like to think I have some understanding of its mission as the state’s flagship public university. With that said, I have been genuinely and deeply appalled – unfortunately there is no more politic word – at the Administration’s policies with regard to the intimately related issues of executive and staff compensation.

Without detailing the former at length, it’s fair to say that the compensation packages and paid leaves arranged for top-end University officials have provoked a general outrage in the state; at precisely the same instant, the Administration has been attempting openly to downsize and disadvantage workers at the very lowest end of the University pay scale. The offer with regard to staff health care, currently on the bargaining table, is especially egregious, but all the more so when ranged against the coverage – and the generous supplementary “wellness package” – enjoyed by our outgoing President.

It has long been the Board’s contention that only a radical restructuring – a starkly minimal reimagining – of compensation and retirement for faculty and staff will carry the University forward in these economic times. Yet the financial lives of the uppermost Administration – including those actually paid to leave the University – have changed only for the better. Our outgoing President’s total compensation exceeded the salary paid not only to the Governor, but to the President of the United States of America. And of course President Fogel will continue to receive all of the various perks granted him through an extraordinary 17-month paid leave.

By way of justification, the Board has argued that its hands are tied on staff compensation: it must create a “sustainable” workforce by paying the staff the absolute least they will accept. On Presidential compensation, the Board argues the reverse: its hands are tied by a national economy that dictates paying the President the most he might ask – that is, what he just might theoretically get elsewhere. In short, the Board argues that it has no choice but to continue to greatly expand the gap between the highest and the lowest paid – only such a course is sustainable.

I couldn’t disagree more profoundly. That approach is serving to injure and diminish the University of Vermont on a daily basis, as well as those who labor long and hard year- round to make it an academic showplace.

As you know, the Higher Education Trust Fund – created by the Legislature some years ago and charged with helping to fund higher education at various levels within the state – has traditionally provided the University (as well as the State College system) with a substantial yearly contribution, to be matched by UVM and deposited directly into the University’s endowment. This year the University’s share of that contribution is estimated at roughly $182,408. Yet the contribution is not automatic; it must be authorized yearly by a subcommittee of the Pre-K to 16 Council. I was recently appointed by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell to both the Council and the relevant sub-committee.

While that sub-committee has never refused to authorize these funds to my knowledge, neither was it intended as a rubber stamp. The fact that a vote is required at all implies that a negative decision just might, on rare occasions, better serve the interests of higher education in Vermont.

That is exactly the position in which I find myself: I will vote this week to withhold this year’s portion of the Trust Fund from the University of Vermont, until such time as the Trustee’s newly empanelled committee on executive compensation returns its findings and recommendations. It is my hope that the board will then enact meaningful executive compensation reform, through its own deliberative process, well in advance of negotiations with the incoming President.

But if not, I cannot conscience the direct transfer of taxpayer funds into an endowment, and a general University economy, managed with such open and continuing disregard for frugality, equity, and justice.

And I should make clear that I will seek as well to divide the question, in our committee discussion, allowing me to vote simultaneously to authorize funds for the State Colleges, whose executive compensation is all but a model by comparison.

As you know perhaps better than anyone, there was a time when sustainable, green buildings were viewed as fanciful and cost-prohibitive by the Board. Today, student tour guides boast of the Davis Center’s LEED Gold certification to prospective students and their parents, and the parents are impressed – I know because I hear these tours from my office window almost every day. In this and in other ways, green buildings pay for themselves. That is the true meaning of the word sustainable.

The University could make a similar selling point, say, of a certain low fixed ratio between the salary of its President and the salary of its lowest-paid employee. Cost-conscious parents would be impressed, and their concerns about rapidly rising tuition would be mollified. Would we land a new University President intent on being paid more than the President of the United States? Probably not – but we would certainly wind up with a woman or man committed to true frugality, to equity and shared sacrifice, a sustainable President to match the sustainable workforce you seek.

And in so doing, the University of Vermont would begin to lead and reform the national academic marketplace, rather than continue to claim to be held hostage by it.

Thank you for your attention to this matter, and in advance for passing on my concerns to your fellow Trustees. I can be reached at any of the contact numbers below, should you wish to discuss any of these points further.

Yours sincerely,