Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The TP Index



Recently, when an intrepid undergraduate, Laura Woodward discovered, as a result of her investigative journalism, that Ryerson has an institutional double standard in terms of access to two-ply toilet paper (not surprisingly, students get single-ply whereas a range of administrative offices seem to be supplied with the cushy stuff), I made a joke on facebook about the TP index as a quick and dirty (sorry) way of measuring administrative bloat (I just can’t seem to help myself) in higher education.

But then I got to thinking about another TP index: the ratio of tuition to presidential salary.

I got to thinking about this because I showed this slide in my first-year course on business and literature (really, it’s not as bad as it sounds):



(Note the particular elegance of the parliamentary formula for prime ministerial compensation where the PM’s salary is exactly double that of the average MP.)

We had been reading Thomas Piketty on income inequality (and the really interesting ways that he uses the literature of Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, and Henry James in order to illustrate the effects of income disparity) and the rise of what he identifies as an era “extreme meritocracy” where executive pay has climbed to new levels. As the 25 September 2015 Times Literary Supplement reports in its review of Piketty’s new book, The Economics of Income Inequality, “Over the past two decades, the ratio of CEO pay to the average pay of their workforce has widened in the USA from 20:1 to 231: 1 (with banks themselves leading the way with a ratio of 500:1).” The AFL-CIO measures the rate of CEO pay in Canada to be approximately 206: 1. In the university community in Canada, we have started to pay more attention to administrative compensation than ever. Perhaps most famously, there was the recent Chakmagate at Western where we find President Amit Chakma apologizing for his $924,000 compensation in 2014 and offering to return half of it. So, well, yes.

But to return to the scene of my undergraduate classroom, there was at first confusion about the guy on the on right. Understandably, we can’t all be expected to know who the president of York University might be or what he might look like and it seems okay that he is somewhat less recognizable than our current prime minister. But after we sorted out the who’s who, we did of course try to figure out craziness of these metrics. How is it that two public servants can be compensated in such a way where the guy who decides if we should go to war is paid much less than the guy who decides what tuition should be? My point here is not that the prime minister should paid more, or even that the president of York is paid too much. I did stress to my students that President Shoukri’s pay is completely in line with that of other university presidents in Ontario and around the country.

However, they were understandably still perplexed by the actual numbers. To be honest, I am too. I don’t really know why or how we have come to these salaries. I am especially confused by the fact that this compensation extends past their tenure as presidents. But this is not a discussion about how Canadian university presidents’ pay has skyrocketed. And I know that we are all confused about where the money goes.

I just want to talk about how my students processed all this information and what we can take from that.

My students immediately talked about way in which they experience university as a financial problem: tuition.

Although I will be the first to resist the narrative of students as consumers, I do think that considering tuition in relation to administrative compensation would offer a useful way to think about the connection between university administrations and students.

For example, high pay + low tuition would mean that this is one of the few times when a high ratio or a significant gap would be welcome.

Of course, the ideal would be low pay + low tuition.

At my university, full-time tuition for most non-professional programs, including compulsory supplemental fees is $7102.

That means that the TP index at York is about 65:1.

At the University of Alberta, the outgoing president, Indira Samarasekera took home $544,00 in salary and just over $1.1 million in total compensation last year. Full-time tuition and fees for most programs comes in at $7068. That means the TP index at the U of A is about: 156:1.

Of course, indexes are just numbers and they are not numbers that tell us the whole story about any story, especially one as complex as one this one where we need to take into account plummeting levels of public investment in higher education and a range of other pressures on the university system as a whole.

But they do help us get to some big picture questions. How can we understand university executive compensation in relation to the other numbers that we have to think about? At my department meeting today, I was told York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (where the English department is housed) is looking at a deficit of $6.6 million in 2015-16. At Faculty Council, I was presented with similarly dire numbers where the bars and arrows on the graphs were all going in the wrong direction. But there were no graphs on executive compensation even though I think we all know which direction those bars and arrows would go.

I’m not that interested in the actual numbers as far as executive compensation goes. But I’m very interested in the relationship between numbers.

In talking about income disparity, the general trend is to talk about executive pay as a ratio of that of the average worker. However, in universities, the vast majority of people who take part in the institution are students, and not employees of the university. To think about their place as indexed to that of the compensation of leader of the institution is to ask us to think about other kinds of disparities.  Here, we can go beyond access to two-ply. We can talk about access to education first and foremost. We can talk about access to having the kind of space for breathing and dreaming that an undergraduate education should enable but which many of my undergraduates do not feel that they can afford because they are terrified of being jobless at the end of their degrees. Last week, in a casual conversation, an associate dean in my faculty mentioned that our students seemed to have a kind of “hope deficit.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My experience of  teaching undergraduate students has generally been one of overwhelming gratitude for the courage and perspectives they bring to my classroom. But I know what this associate dean meant when she talked about a hope deficit. Our students are also often desperately uncertain about their futures and this uncertainty leads to a lack of hope and thus a real fear that studying something that might bring them real joy and pleasure can only come at some kind of terrible unspecified future cost.

And yet, we are in a national moment where even unicorns might be real. Or, at least, where the long-form census, un-muzzled scientists and diplomats, and gender parity in government cabinets are suddenly quiet real.

So, maybe what I want from the TP index is not so much all the outrage about outrageous pay packages (don’t get me wrong, I still care about that!), but rather something that takes up a deficit I really care about: hope. And with that hope a genuine belief that a university education really does, as I believe, make life better.

I’m not asking for unicorns (although I too would like braid their glorious manes.) The TP index is just my way of saying that we need a more profound connection between the president of a university and the students who are at the core of the university’s mission. But I’ll take some unicorns too.

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