Top U. of C. staffers need accountability

Strong social media response to my second University of Chicago exposé indicates a widespread sense that top staffers have the wrong values, to the detriment of mission and the taxpayers who fund research and education through grants and student loans.

According to original tax data analysis in my Sept. 27 Jacobin article “Higher Education’s Aristocrats”, eight high-level U of C admin skimmed more than $7.6 million over five years via 40-135% pay raises, even as the school moved toward its July 2014 credit downgrade.

As a result, staffing costs for just these eight people rose from $3.4 to almost $6 million a year, and each administrator cumulatively received anywhere from $450,000 to $3.3 million through pay raises alone:

1) President Robert Zimmer – $3,306,390 in pay raises.
2) VP David Greene (now at Colby College) – $1,079,801 in pay raises.
3) Provost Thomas Rosenbaum (now at Caltech) – $654,993 in pay raises.
4) VP Julie Peterson – $610,519 in pay raises.
5) VP Beth Harris – $532,892 in pay raises.
6) VP Nimalan Chinniah (now at Northwestern) – $529,496 in pay raises.
7) VP Donald Levy – $452,492 in pay raises.
8) VP David Fithian – $450,268 in pay raises.

Pay raises were granted independent of minor title changes among some VPs, and seem to extend deeper than the eight staffers; for example, VP James Nondorf skimmed $636,000 via a 112% pay raise over just three years.

The reasoning behind the compensation increases is still unclear. No administrator responded to multiple requests for the names and offices of people overseeing their compensation increases, a rationale for the increases, corroborating documentation for the increases’ rationale (or their permission to obtain such documentation), or a personal statement clarifying how the U of C benefits from this allocation of money.

VPs Levy and Fithian and an assistant responding to Zimmer’s email directed the request to spokesman Steve Kloehn, who after a second query said he would be “back in touch” but has not yet produced a statement.

Surprisingly, these pay raises overlapped with not only the financial crisis, but also the accumulation of debt totaling more than half of the U of C’s endowment and constituting the largest relative debt among peer institutions, according to Bloomberg.

Additionally, the U of C has simultaneously violated standard higher ed advice and helped profit two trustee-associated companies (Aramark and Hyatt) and attempted to benefit a third trustee from the financially- and legally-interlinked medical center (development company White Lodgings).

In response to this situation, many of the more than two hundred Tweets expressed surprise. For example, former Harvard dean Harry Lewis termed the pay raises an “amazing run up in compensation” in his blog, while economist Dean Baker used Twitter to remind people that U of C’s “7-figure execs… rely on taxpayer handouts.”

Overall, everyone seems to know that something is wrong at the U of C: all available information indicates that the top administrative echelon and an unknown number of trustees are deliberately exploiting a lack of checks-and-balances in order to profit themselves at the expense of the institution and taxpayers’ investment in education and research.

At this point, however, what can be done?

As an internationally-recognized institution, the U of C vividly shows the fundamental flaws of a common form of the trustee system, where a majority of trustees appoint their successors and have to answer to no-one.

Thus, firing a few people, even the President or the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, would change nothing.

Instead, everyone should think about what would constitute meaningful reform – for example, to follow and expand on Harvard’s lead and establish election of trustees by faculty and degree holders as a formal means of accountability.

Recognition of a problem is a very important first step towards its ultimate solution – and people fortunately seem concerned.

David Mihalyfy teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Christianity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, Inside Higher Ed, and Religion Dispatches.