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Public service, not public enrichment: UA president's compensation highlights a disjunct

Marcelle McDannel
OPINION: The University of Alaska Board of Regents is flat-out wrong in trying to import a private, corporate model of CEO compensation into a public university. Hefty salaries and bonuses violate the promise that all state workers tacitly agree to in working on behalf of the public. Loren Holmes photo

The University of Alaska Board of Regents wants to change what it means to be a state employee – at least for one individual. The board decided to offer University of Alaska President Pat Gamble a $320,000 retention bonus, which is the equivalent of what he makes every year. That isn’t public service; it’s public enrichment -- a violation of the 'macaroni salad ethos' that every state employee accepts in exchange for the privilege to do meaningful work. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

Having spent years in public service myself, I’ve learned three important lessons about what that means:

1.  All major holidays and events will be celebrated with an office potluck during lunch hours.

2.  It’s not supposed to make people rich.

3.  No one is irreplaceable.

As lesson No. 1 indicates, it’s not a glamorous life. At the holidays, when people in the private sector are attending lavish company-sponsored events and planning what to do with their bonuses, state employees drink soda from Dixie cups and eat three different kinds of macaroni salad off paper plates at the noon-time office party. In fact, a state office is the macaroni salad of work environments: it’s not fancy or exotic, it can make folks lethargic if they don’t keep moving, but on the whole, it’s satisfying.

State employees get steady paychecks, good benefits (although not as good as they used to be), but most importantly, they are allowed the privilege of serving the public in ways that are meaningful. All those hours spent at the office make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s exactly why most do it. In my line of work -- criminal law -- the state employees, both prosecutors and public defenders, willingly forgo the earning potential of the private sector because they care about the impact their work has on the community.

This brings me to lesson No. 2. According to marketplace.org, a yearly income of $332,000 per year puts an individual into the infamous “top 1 Percent.” Is it appropriate for a state employee to be handed enough public money to throw him that close the top 1 percent of all earners in this country? As far as I can tell, Gamble’s $320,000 yearly salary alone -- without the bonus -- makes him the highest paid public employee in this state not heading up a state-backed corporation.

Salary should be an expression of an individual’s value to the people of the state of Alaska, so let’s take a look at where Gamble’s salary ranks among those of other folks who perform important jobs. Alaska's governor is the chief executive of a state of about 735,000 residents. Gamble is the president of a public university system that serves 30,000 full and part-time students. But at a yearly salary of $145,000, the governor makes less than half of what Gamble takes home each year. Both get free high-end housing.

The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, the head of the court that interprets our laws and the boundaries of our freedoms, does better than the governor at $197,000 per year, but is still nowhere close to Gamble. Gamble is, in fact, paid at least $100,000 more per year than any other important state official I could find: the chief medical examiner, the attorney general, the commissioners of every department of state government, all of our state legislators. Is Pat Gamble’s contribution to this state really that much more important than all of these other state officials?

My objection to enrichment with public money isn’t just one of appearance; there’s an underlying problem here. We need educated, qualified people to take state jobs to replace those who are retiring or joining the private sector. But too many recent graduates are being squeezed out of public service by the outrageous cost of their education. In my field, new lawyers are starting their professional lives with an astounding $200,000 in student loan debt -- the current cost for three years of law school. Undergraduates are amassing similarly depressing levels of debt before they start their first jobs, with monthly payments equivalent to what you would pay for on a mortgage for a decent-sized home -- except of course that bachelor’s degree provides scant shelter from inclement weather.

This is why the board is flat-out wrong in trying to import a corporate model of CEO compensation into a public university. Especially at a time when each campus is facing widespread cuts to staff and department budgets and the threat of tuition hikes, the regents and the UA president  need to accept the compact shared by every state employee: that for the privilege of serving the public good, you will forgo the opportunity to make yourself rich on public money. It is a violation of this compact to sacrifice the educational opportunities of many to enrich just one.

This brings me to the final lesson of public service: no one is irreplaceable. Governors serve out their terms and leave office. Legislators are voted out, Supreme Court justices retire. It was, in fact, one of our former governors who demonstrated so aptly the our state government is designed to keep functioning when any one person decides that the luster of public service can no longer compete with the lure of private wealth. The business of state goes on. In short, if you need your side dishes to be flavored with truffle oil instead of mayonnaise, find yourself a different job.

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide. Contact her at marcelle@alaskadispatch.com​.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.