Salary Spin Cycle – Does It Hold Water?

A bag full of cash

Mark your calendars! On Friday, April 1, it will be time for the annual disclosure of the Ontario public sector $100,000 club.

Of course, the boards that hire the agency heads, presidents and CEOs will be furiously spinning to justify the big salaries, with exactly the same line they roll out every year.

“We need to pay competitive salaries because we need to attract the best talent.”

That’s the platitude we get fed, but what is the competition for salaries and are we really attracting the best talent?

Let’s try a test. Our guinea pigs will be Ontario university presidents. They’re always going on about the importance of research so they should support being part of a grand experiment.

We’ll look at two factors – first, the salaries paid to university presidents in 1996 (the first year of salary disclosure) and 2009 (the last year reported); and second, where university presidents were recruited from in 1996 and 2009 to test how far and wide recruitment is reaching.

In 1996, university presidential salaries averaged $175,162. The highest was Wilfrid Laurier’s Lorna Marsden at $223,963.

The vast majority of presidents were from Ontario and most were promoted from within their own university. Three were lured from other provinces. The one international recruit was Mordechai Rozanski, who came to Guelph from Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. Don’t worry if you never heard of Wagner College – no one has ever heard of Wagner College.

Fast-forward to 2009 and the average university president hauled in $368,168 – a 110 percent increase over 1996. And yes, you are correct if you think that 110 percent is just the teensiest bit better than inflation, which rose 28 percent over the same period.

Side note: McMaster’s Peter George was the only university president around in both 1996 and 2009. His pay went from $193,860 to a rap star worthy $524,435. Yep, same guy, same job – 171 percent increase. 

In 2009, the four highest paid presidents were McMaster’s Peter “Diddy” George – $524,435, Waterloo’s David Johnston – $485,039, York’s Mamdouh Shoukri – $478,073, and Guelph’s Alastair Summer – $434,517. Pretty big salaries indeed, but are they competitive? 

They are competitive if you are trying to beat Barack Obama. Yes, the leader of the free world only deserves a US $400,000 (CDN $389,900) payday. Somehow the boards from at least four universities think that their president is going to be lured away to take a run at the Oval Office.

Yes, President Obama does get use of Air Force One for date nights with Michelle so he’s got the university presidents there – at least until somebody gets the keys to a Bombardier C-Series in the next contract.

But these huge salary increases are justified, because we are finally recruiting the world’s best to come to Ontario and lead our universities, right?

Oh my, no. By 2009, we did triple the number of international recruits to, um, three. Carleton snagged the president from Old Dominion University. Nipissing wrangled a vice president from Michigan Technological University, and Lakehead landed an administrator from Colorado State. You might not have heard of the first two schools, but I bet everyone has heard of Colorado State, because Colorado is in fact a state.

By the way, each of those “international” recruits is an Ontario-raised ex-pat academic who returned to the Great White North – hardly an international cadre beating down the ivory tower doors. Ontario university presidents are still recruited overwhelmingly from the ranks of Ontario universities, with a scattering from other provinces.

So what did our little experiment tell us? Today, universities are paying more than twice as much as they did in 1996 to recruit from the same pool of candidates. Don’t look for the logic in that last sentence, because there is none.

I, for one, am looking forward to Friday’s spin. Maybe someone will have something new to say. Maybe someone will really be able to justify the salary explosion in the top ranks of the public sector. But I won’t bet my (much smaller) paycheque on it.

Kim Alba is a pseudonym for a Toronto-based writer who has a passing familiarity with Canada’s institutes of higher learning.