It often happens (especially since the financial crisis of the 2000’s) that people criticize what they perceive as unjustifiably large salaries for top positions in public institutions. What noticeably occurs less often is the exact opposite: one of these aforementioned people brings up the issue themselves. Nevertheless, in a shocking move that is still creating ripples across the American academic environment, Gregory Fenves, the incoming University of Texas at Austin president has done just that. His criticism wasn’t contained to an interview or academic paper either. Instead, he broached the subject in the actual talks regarding his remuneration where he decided to break with tradition by negotiating a lower salary. Fenves justified the unusual move by pointing out that “$1 million is too high for a public university”. He pointed out that the proposed sum was sure to attract the public ire of the university’s students and staff, particularly in the context of the institution’s recent financial struggle. Pragmatically, he also saw the move as a way to make it easier for the institution to negotiate its budget with the state legislature “on matters that are important to the university.” Whatever the skeptics may say, it really seems like an admirable selfless act.
Described by an employment contracts specialist as an “extremely uncommon” move, the negotiations saw the salary lowered to $750,000, still a hefty sum by any standard. The decision is surely an ideological one as well since it comes at a time of increasing “corporatization” throughout many higher education institutions in the United States. This corporatization made the employment process along with the salaries of university presidents a subject not too dissimilar to what one might expect to find in a Fortune 500 company. While negotiating a lower salary is rare in academia, it is surely even more unheard of in the corporate world.
It’s more than likely that Fenves’ decision has much to do with his predecessor, Bill Powers who was often criticized for supporting unpopular actions such as tuition hikes and non-scientific research. Surprisingly, Powers earned less than Fenves’ current salary at $624,000. This means that the initial $1 million offer made negotiating a higher salary redundant in the first place. Even the original offer was lower than what other university presidents salaries amount to in the Lone Star State. Keep in mind that the University of Houston’s chief is paid $1.1 million.
Whether Gregory Fenves’ surprising foray into negotiating a lower salary will remain an oddity or become the norm in the beginning of a larger conversation regarding over-bloated executive-level compensation for public officials remains to be seen. In any event, Fenves, who gained the position as an internal candidate intimately familiar with the budgetary hardships of the institution, did manage to create a huge buzz around the University of Texas at Austin campus. Ultimately, the sort of sympathy that a move like this brings along could prove instrumental in helping the new president with his future negotiations and discussions both inside and outside the university.
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