Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Overpaid CEOs and Higher Education: Continued Need for Critique

I posted a few days ago about the astonishing claim of CNBC commentator Mark Haines that we can’t expect Wall Street companies to be well run by CEOs making less than $250,000 annually (here).

Haines is still at it, still defending the power and privilege of the vastly overcompensated big man and big woman on top. Yesterday he told co-anchor Erin Burnett that the public’s interest in regulating CEO pay is “getting scary” (here).

Scary for whom, I wonder? For the big men and women at the top who have tried to convince us that they deserve more—grossly more—because they work harder than the rest of us, and have sharper leadership skills? Haines is clearly frightened of the possibility that “ordinary” workers—all the rest of us, who don’t receive the obscene salaries and benefits of CEOs—might discover that we work just as hard as or even harder than those who claim to deserve more for their work, and that we have skills to lead as sharp as those who have been paid an arm and a leg to lead us to the edge of a cliff.

Last week, in fact, in an exchange with Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California, Haines asked, “What do the people on Main Street know about running a financial system?"

As I’ve noted repeatedly, my entrée point into discussions of overcompensated CEOs is my experience in academic life, where the adoption of a corporate leadership model has resulted in a trend to gross overcompensation of university presidents and CFOs, as faculty salaries remain flat or fall. This trend has been radically destructive of important values essential to the mission of universities.

The corporatizing trend in university leadership rewards big men and big women at the top who all too often lack any real understanding of what academic life is all about, and any profound commitment to academic excellence and collegial pursuit of the truth. Increasingly, the leadership structures of many universities is top-heavy and top-down, as the corporate model is imposed on academic life.

This assures that the voices most needed to chart a sound course for a university's future—the voices of those who actually do the hard work of teaching and mentoring students, the voices of faculty—are not heard. There are strong parallels between what is happening as markets crash, and the situation of many colleges and universities today, which are increasingly unable to fulfill their mission to shape leaders for our democratic society, because they have adopted the outlook and structures of the corporate world, and in the process have betrayed core values of the academy.

Not much will change in academic life until we are as thoroughgoing in our analysis of the shortcomings of the CEO-president as we are with our present scrutiny of the shortcomings of the Wall Street executives who have brought us to the brink of economic collapse.