A Gentle Reminder: UConn’s leaders love money

Albert Gurdon Gulley Hall, located on Mansfield Way, houses many UConn administrative offices including the offices of the provost and the president. Many administrators have taken large bonuses over the past years even as tuition has risen. (File Photo/The Daily Campus) 

In late June, the news broke that the University of Connecticut would raise the salaries of some of its foremost administrators. This is true, it happened, and I thought I’d gently remind our readers of the phenomenon. Well, it isn’t actually a phenomenon, since the school does this all the time. Anyways, such a gentle reminder is pertinent because, now that we’re in the midst of another school year, students may care more than they did when UConn dumped the news in the middle of the summer, since none of us were really paying attention.

When I learned of these raises, I remember staring, dumbfounded, at my Facebook feed. Seriously? Didn’t we just up tuition? Isn’t the state constantly cutting, or talking about cutting, UConn’s state funding? Haven’t we already increased salaries for administrators in recent years? Was I wrong in thinking that President Susan Herbst herself had accepted bonuses and gifts lately? Am I correct in assuming Connecticut’s “new economic reality,” to borrow Governor Dan Malloy’s phrase, should effectively freeze the salaries of state employees, like UConn’s, which already rate in the hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Herbst, eminently generous, made good on promises to senior staff in the form of letters written in 2013 and 2014. These promises included “multiyear increases to four senior staff,” according to the Hartford Courant. In 2013, raises between $10,000 and $22,500 were also administered to 24 administrators, such as athletic director Warde Manuel, provost Mun Choi, vice provost Sally Reis, master planner Laura Cruickshank and business school dean John Elliott . 

Anger and disbelief from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle after the summer announcement led three out of the four administrators to rescind a portion of their raises. This does not change the fact that they perennially have had their salaries raised.  

Three officials were set for additional pay and partially declined it. Richard Orr, UConn’s primary attorney, had already received $55,000 more than his base salary of $220,000 in the previous two fiscal years, and decided to forego another $40,000. Rachel Rubin - Herbst’s chief of staff, who garnered $52,000 superfluous money to her $203,000 salary in the three fiscal years leading up to this - chose to let go of $45,000. Finally, Laura Cruickshank, the chief architect/master planner of UConn, made $45,000 more than her already $225,000 salary before the newly-proposed raises, bringing her to $270,000. She refused a supplementary $13,000. 

This was an act of goodwill on the university’s part, and should be commended as such, but it is impossible to say whether UConn learned its lesson. Since Herbst became president, and even back during the tenure of Michael Hogan, raises and bonuses for upper-level administrators have been considered the price of business. Furthermore, UConn was cited by auditors last month for misusing $50 million in funds, showing a systemic tendency to spend too much money in the wrong places at the wrong times. With rising tuition and an economic downturn in Connecticut, this move was rightly scrutinized as both arrogant and tone-deaf.

Michael Kirk, Herbst’s deputy chief of staff, did not give back his bonus. Herbst did not give back her annual $40,000 bonus, or the $154,500 she already received in 2016. And Herbst was critical of the legislature even when she announced that some bonuses would be renounced, defending the initial decision for another round of raises by saying that’s what has to be done to keep talented employees. This is incredible. The logic goes as, because other institutions of higher education overpay their administrators, UConn must also do so.

Herbst is already set to make $38,000 a year upon retirement. She is the beneficiary of two homes, one in West Hartford bought by the UConn foundation for $660,000, the other in Storrs, which has been renovated to the tune of $1.2 million. Maybe, just maybe, the embarrassingly large sums of money awarded to university presidents is a corrupt, unproductive practice; one that attracts the wrong sort of person – people of ambition and material concerns rather than grand visions beneficial to students.

It seems that, amid state economic turmoil, being an administrator at UConn just might be the best job in Connecticut. The university administration seems to be sequestered from the world around them, and many have built-in contract clauses (like Herbst) that stipulate annual raises. 

Students can expect to see a 31 percent tuition increase in the coming years, which was revealed days before winter break last year in another classic UConn news dump, and this is among these relentless administrative pay raises. Even though much has been made of the pay gap between professors, adjuncts in particular, and university administrators, Herbst & Co. had the gall to raise salaries and subsequently defend the decision. 

Here is university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz’s logic: “They [administrators] are responsible for helping to run a $2.3 billion enterprise…This small number of leadership salaries have no meaningful impact on UConn’s overall budget, workforce, or tuition rates.” This language – “enterprise” – speaks to the destructive view of UConn as a business, and Herbst and her close staff as the highly-paid executives. And, even if UConn insists on running itself like a business, their most comparable counterpart would be Wall Street firms that spurn employees (professors) and customers alike (students), all the while conferring upon their elite inner circle hefty bonuses. The additional millions of dollars that have been added to administrative salaries over the past decade having “no meaningful impact” on the tuition or budget of the university is a suspect defense at best, but that, coupled with the state’s billions of dollars toward STEM funding, is stunning proof that UConn, and Connecticut in general, care more about generating income for a small number of people than they do about making higher education affordable. 

Malloy did not criticize this move in June. A statement from his office read: “We are confident that UConn is doing their best to live within their means while working to accomplish their mission.” This public display of trust in Herbst Inc. comes after Malloy fought against a labor deal that was apparently too favorable for UConn’s Professional Employees Association: “At a time when the state is realigning spending and services, rescinding raises for nearly 2,000 managers, and significantly reducing its workforce, I believe this is a contract Connecticut cannot afford,” Malloy said. “It would set a precedent that would necessitate the elimination of even more jobs. I urge the General Assembly to reject this contract, and respectfully ask that UConn and UCPEA return to the bargaining table.” Malloy's liberal credentials are nonexistent: he chides the greedy employees' union but stands idly by as Herbst Corp. lines its pockets. 

And, lest it be forgotten, UConn felt it okay to try and raise its highly-ranked administrative salaries after Herbst visited the legislature to warn against cutting UConn’s budget: “A reduction to the appropriation in that amount would, without question, have a devastating impact on every aspect of university operations, faculty teaching and research and student success… The greatest consequences of this would be the effect it would have on our students, our academic programs and the role UConn must play in the state’s future, economic and otherwise.” Put your money where your PR is: give up your bonuses and stop giving them to your friends. Start a scholarship fund. Work to make college affordable. (Please?)

UConn is a solid and steadily improving university. Everybody, from the top down, should be credited in its success. That being said, those on the downward side of things should be reminded of what’s going on at the top. With history as our guide, the top will keep taking unless we take the top to task.  


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927.