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UC and the academic pay wars

December 2, 2011 | 12:11 pm

UCLA
It makes blood boil when the University of California imposes hefty tuition increases -- fairly close to triple what students were charged a decade ago -- because its state funding levels are so low, and then hands out even heftier salary increases to a dozen or so executives. Not because those increases have any effect on tuition rates -- though perhaps they could provide some financial aid to a handful of students -- but because of the perception that an institution in terrible financial straits should be acting in every regard as though it's in terrible financial straits. "Tone deaf" is the term more often heard.

In truth, it's difficult to figure out whether these newly approved increases are justified or not. One is easy to understand: the head of a medical center who had been offered a job somewhere else. The money for the increase comes from private funding sources, and UC should be able to react competitively when another employer tries to steal away one of its staff.

But then there's this mushier business of the compensation studies showing that UC doesn't pay its  staff in salary and benefits quite up to the level of other major research universities. Of course, you may be sure that once it does, there will be more studies telling the other schools that they have to raise their compensation packages to vie with UC.

UC is the jewel of the state's higher-education system, and it delivers more than a fine education for California students and a well-trained populace; it also draws great brains, investment money and prestige to the state. There's validity to the argument that it has to remain competitive; what's unclear is whether these differences in compensation have indeed been leading irreplaceable staff to find other jobs in academia, which is going through its own crunch nationwide. UC President Mark Yudof should be providing us with a stronger argument than these studies, which themselves don't mean much unless the university system is suffering a real brain drain. Of course, some professors and administrators will seek out spots at other colleges simply as a bargaining chip to get a raise in their current jobs.

But it's time for UC to lead the way toward a new model of doing business by stopping this practice of justifying raises through compensation studies. Those studies, an industry unto themselves, have been a disheartening factor nationwide in the academic arms race that has prompted tuition hikes to outstrip most other sectors. The question shouldn't be what other schools pay, providing a theoretical model of competition, but a true study of what it takes to hire and retain great people in the real world of the ivory tower.

RELATED:

Cuts to higher education: The Master Plan turncoats

University of California: Deciding salaries and raises

University of California announces raises for non-union workers

California dreaming: Lower taxes -- but don't try to get your kid into a UC

--Karin Klein 

Photo: UCLA architecture student Deane Madsen works on a project in a Perloff Hall classroom. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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