Metro

Brian Mcgrory

The lap dogs of luxury at UMass

You can spend an entire career in journalism, graduating from selectmen’s meetings to congressional hearings to federal corruption trials, and never wander into anything half as good as the last eight minutes of the University of Massachusetts trustees meeting earlier this week.

A group who make up what is called the compensation committee gathered to decide whether it seemed excessive to give recently departed UMass president Jack Wilson a fully paid yearlong sabbatical at his $425,000 base salary. After that, they were to determine whether his pay as a professor should be really high or incomprehensively high.

Keep in mind the backdrop. The world is basically broke. Beacon Hill has basically abandoned the UMass system. The school has been forced to cut hundreds of faculty.

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Across this state, parents are trying to figure out how to come up with $22,000 in tuition, fees, and housing for UMass Amherst: Do they have enough equity in their house? Can their kid get a student loan?

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So you might logically think that the trustees wanted to send a message that not a nickel of anyone’s money is being misspent, that legislators should commit more taxpayer funds, that they are not getting caught up in the kind of absurd arms race that resulted in a school like Suffolk paying a mediocre president more than $1 million a year.

Think again. Think very much again.

The committee spent a half hour affirming Wilson’s $425,000 sabbatical and set his professor’s salary at about $260,000. They based this decision on an independent review done by the same guy who negotiated one of Wilson’s contracts for the board.

And then came the last eight minutes. One of the trustees blurted out that it looked like the UMass chancellors - the people who preside over individual campuses - are paid on the low end of the scale.

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Each trustee chimed in their agreement about raising the “modest’’ salaries of the “underpaid’’ UMass chancellors. “We’re competing in the real world,’’ said one. Added another: “If you’re going to get great leaders, you have to step up.’’ That kept building until another one said: “I don’t think we can wait.’’

The salaries they were talking about: $375,000 for the Amherst chancellor, $490,000 for the UMass Medical School chancellor, and $280,000 for the Lowell chancellor. Those figures don’t include perks like life insurance, deferred compensation, and annuities.

So just to be clear: A UMass panel entered a meeting to decide if it was being too generous with its former president (it was) and left saying it wasn’t being generous enough with other executives. If these guys are fiscal watchdogs, let’s call them Cuddles and Cookie.

The board’s chairman, Jim Karam, called yesterday. He’s a hard-nosed leader with a sharp edge, someone who rose from the tenements of Fall River to a self-made millionaire, all with the benefit of a UMass education. He sets a good example for the system he heads.

He offered the you-get-what-you-pay-for argument, which basically ignores studies that show high pay doesn’t correlate to a school’s distinction. It also doesn’t explain the fact that he already has some excellent people running these campuses - Marty Meehan in Lowell and Michael Collins at the medical school, for example - who don’t appear to be leaving.

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“You don’t have a callous board here that doesn’t understand the pain in the economy,’’ Karam said, adding that no raises were imminent.

Which is good, but it would be nice if the UMass board reflected a little more of Main Street and a little less Wall Street in the future.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.