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$320,000 bonus for University of Alaska president is outrageous

John Havelock
OPINION: Think of all the better ways the University of Alaska could spend $320,000 than feathering the president's nest, like maybe ways to benefit students more directly. Pictured: Graduates of the University of Alaska Anchorage Class of 2014. Bill Roth

In an Aug. 12 commentary, Marcelle McDannel wrote a fine piece on compensation of public officers but let off, way too lightly, University of Alaska President Pat Gamble, the regents and the governor. Particularly for Gov. Parnell, this is a major scandal and an intolerable diversion of public funds.

Gen. Gamble retired after combat distinction, with four stars, an MBA, but no other higher education qualifications and a six-figure annual retirement. His subsequent nine years of service as president of the Alaska Railroad netted him another $290,000 a year and another high-figure retirement.

The university pays him $320,000 a year and, I would guess, another retirement package on top of his existing retirements. And, oh yes, he gets a free mansion worth another $100,000 and a six figure expense account.

His predecessor, President Hamilton, offered to surrender his total yearly salary if the Legislature would fund the university’s request. The President of Kentucky State University knocked $90,000 off his $350,000 salary this year so the university’s minimum wage workers would get another $3 per hour in earnings. There’s some class.

As the ADN reported and Ms. McDannel noted, the regents, (all Parnell appointees) just voted President Gamble an extra $320,000 “retention bonus," “so please would he stay another couple of years (as planned)?”

Try to imagine the conversations that preceded this doubling of a staggering annual salary. I doubt that Pat Gamble asked for it but it had to be approved by Gov. Parnell. Who would have the guts to give away that kind of money without checking? One regent to another: “Pat’s a great guy, agreed? Let’s check with Sean about doubling his salary for a year.” Governor: “Sure, he’s a great guy.” Or, governor to regent: Same message, pick your own variations.

What kind of a favor are Pat Gamble and the regents doing to the university when its budget comes up next year? Legislators are paid between $50,000 and $88,000, depending on who’s counting, for a job with serious responsibilities that leaves little room for another job unless you work for a major oil company. Will they agree that this bonus fits with the priorities of higher education? Think of the alternatives. How about the university layoffs that finance his bonus? Or 320 scholarships at $1,000 apiece for needy students or sixteen $20,000 incentives to bring national scholars to Alaska’s campuses?

We have a governor who is sufficiently in tune with university affairs that he can tell the regents to tell the president to tell a chancellor to tell a provost to tell an athletics director to fire a hockey coach. This $320,000 bonus stuff was cleared or originated with him. If you doubt it, why has he has not spoken against this outrage since it became public?

These mega-salaries claim justification because they compare with the salaries and bonuses paid to giant corporate CEOs. As we all know, over the past few years, the stretch between average salaries and the big shots have soared -- to something like 400 times the worker’s salary, way disproportionate to the stretch in other Western nations. There is no justification for public universities to follow this folly -- for friendship.

Alaska educators have watched the growth in size and power of already highly paid administrative officers (and sports budgets) while their own compensation for teaching has not kept up with inflation. It is time for another look at the money and who’s running the show.

Universities should be run by those who have proven themselves in the ranks as scholars and administrators. Our recently departed Anchorage superintendent of schools comes to mind as a model. Presidents and chancellors can justify salaries in excess of full professors but not that much. What is required? As Ms. McDannel pointed out, people who go into the teaching professions go there because they believe in public service. They are not there to make a lot of bucks.

So President Gamble: reallocate the money to prevent layoffs, increase scholarships or strengthen academic programs. Better, Gov. Parnell: take back that gift of public money.

John Havelock, a former Attorney General, founded the University’s Justice programs and taught for a decade before retiring.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com