bad academics · equity · one · righteous feminist anger

A little spring "sunshine list"

If you live in Ontario, you know that the so-called “Sunshine List” is out. An innovation from the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government in 1996, the list, featuring all public sector workers who earn total public compensation of more than $100,000, was introduced to “make Ontario’s public sector more open and accountable to taxpayers.” Alberta introduced its own sunshine list in 2014. They make for compelling and controversial reading.

The lists are generally mined publicly to two purposes. First, to decry the sheer number of public sector employees who join the list each year, a means to note that ever more sun seems to shine in civil service while others suffer. Some of this is exaggerated: if the sunshine threshold of $100,000 had been pegged to inflation, for example, the cutoff salary for disclosure would have rise to $142,338. Here, the tool is incredibly politically useful to to pit workers against one another, particularly as the real purchasing power of the threshold salary decreases: the list gets “too big” and despite inflation many (underpaid) workers find it unfair that so many others are tagged as earning a salary high enough to be publicly disclosed. The general move of this is not to argue that private sector workers ought to be better compensated, but that unionized public employees ought to be brought down. So every year the number stays the same, and every year the private sector holds its wages down, the sunshine list becomes more useful as a tool to attack the public service unions. Pegging to inflation would defeat the purpose. In fact, using the inflation-adjusted cutoff of $142,338, there would be 4000 fewer workers on the sunshine list now than in 2005, for example. That would take, for example, a ton of police officers and university professors (including most of my own department, and, well, me) off the list. In fact, if the number stayed pegged to inflation, I would probably never get on it. Ever.

Unless I move into administration in a more serious way.

The second use of the list, of course, is to find the outliers: generally, this group includes C-suite executives of crown corporations–hospital heads, apparently anything to do with electricity, and, this year, Western University President Amit Chakma.

Amit Chakma was given $942,000 in salary last year. This is an outrageous number. (Even in 1996 dollars: $661,803.) I am finding it very, very hard, in this age of adjunctification, of poverty-level graduate student funding, of rising class sizes and 50 year old classrooms with 40 year old chairs, to find a way to wrap my head around a nearly $1,000,000 annual compensation package for the president of a public university.

Ok. I’m finding it impossible.

Apparently, Chakma’s salary is in a one-time doubling scenario, because he’s skipping a full sabbatical. Regardless, in a shared governance scenario where university leaders are supposed to rise up from within the ranks, it seems outrageous to then separate them so effectively by vaulting them into the 1%, a socioeconomic stratum from which they never seem to descend to re-join the ranks.

At my university, when you take a full year sabbatical (after six years), you have your salary reduced to 60% of its value for the duration. If you take an early (six month) sabbatical (after three years), you have your salary reduced to 80% of its value. Under no scenario that I know of can you double your salary by not taking an earned sabbatical. This very term, I myself am meant to be on sabbatical–but I’m not, because grad chair. I am earning a stipend for this work, to compensate for the responsibility and aggravation and the lack of sabbaticals: this stipend amounts to something south of $5000 annually, if you’d like to know. I consider this incredibly generous.

As Jason Haslam noted in an open letter to the Western Board of Governors, the compensation provided to Chakma could fund 130 classes offered by sessionals at Western’s rate of pay. He asks: is President Chakma’s work worth 130 undergraduate classrooms of students? I might add: is President Chakma’s work worth 15 junior assistant professors? Worth 9 mid-career associates? Is it worth a $10,000 top-up to the funding of 94 graduate students to bring them above poverty-level wages for teaching all those undergrads?

These are questions internal to the operations of the university sphere. We who toil (with radically different compensation packages) within it understand what’s at stake. And just how much we’re losing.

Perhaps even more damaging, though, is the blow that Chakma-gate deals to the university in the general conversation. The sunshine list in general and presidential salary in particular lead the public to believe that universities are rife with enormous salaries and privilege. It makes it very hard to understand how so many instructors can be so very poor. It makes it hard to understand why tuition and fees are so high but the teachers are bringing their own whiteboard markers to class. It’s hard to claim austerity and ask for increased government funding for education when university presidents are drawing such outrageous compensations packages.

Here we are, crying structural institutional impoverishment while trying to split hairs that #notallprofs are overpaid (or even profs, for that matter) but #yesalladministrators are taking too much, but could the same government that pays the salaries give us more for … salaries? And, as usual, it’s the students and the contingent workers–and the university project as a whole, understood as a public good–who will be the losers. So many April fools.

5 thoughts on “A little spring "sunshine list"

  1. Some years ago, thanks to hard work by the Hamilton Spectator and a bit of a push from some faculty associations, the employment contracts for all university presidents in Ontario became publicly available. Most of them included remarkable provisions not dissimilar to those in Amit Chakma's recent contract. You can still find most of these contracts on line, and some universities still routinely make these contracts public, though without much fanfare. They include things like interest free loans, some of which needn't be repaid if the President stays in the job for long enough. Notoriously, one included payments of $99k/yr for five years after leaving the university, an amount conveniently just below the Sunshine threshold. Much of it has the appearance of keeping the reportable number for the sunshine list a bit lower than actual compensation turns out to be—kinda like a sports team deferring income to reduce the amount they need to count against a salary cap. After all, things like car allowances and golf club memberships have to be reported.

    (Incidentally, you may recall Aimee that there was a similar fuss at Waterloo when Chakma left his job as Waterloo Provost to become the president at Western—in 2010 he was the second highest paid person at Waterloo, though he left Waterloo in 2009 … again, pay in lieu of an unused admin leave. The highest paid person at Waterloo that year was the current Governor General, who left the university mid-year, also because of pay received in lieu of admin leave.)

    I think the issue, really, is that the pay of top administrators is, typically, negotiated with a compensation committee of the Board of Governors. So the relevant people eyeballing the salary of the President are bankers and CEOs who are probably making a lot more money than the Pres is, and who find it remarkable that someone would take a job running a multi-hundreds of millions of dollars enterprise for between a quarter and half a million bucks. Presidents are arguably way overpaid compared to faculty, but they get compared to business leaders, whose compensation has grown even more disproportionately in recent years. If the goal is to change things, changing the way compensation is set is where to begin—perhaps by putting faculty members on the compensation committee, for starters. And I think if the goal is to change things, the relevant debating issues will be whether we'll lose all the good university presidents to higher paying gigs in other jurisdictions (it's much more lucrative to be a Pres at a significant American university, e.g.), and whether people will just stay in the ranks of the professoriate if the pay for a president isn't double or triple what they'd get as high flying profs, which most of them would be had they not gone into admin. (The case is complicated, too, since the President's salary arguably needs to be set so there is room for steps in salary between highly paid full profs and deans, then ordinary VPs, then Provosts and finally Presidents). I think the answer to both those questions is no, but I do think that's the debate to prepare for if the goal is change.


  2. I left a position of tenured associate at a mid-sized Canadian research school for a tenure-track position as associate/spousal hire at a small, private, liberal arts university in the United States. Contrary to what many people thought, we are paid less here – one of the many costs, financial and psychological, of the move. (And no, taxes aren’t much lower, as it turns out).

    Further: I absolutely support the critique of the growth of university administration at the expense of teaching positions. It seems inexplicable and inexcusable, although I respect the service of many of the people I know working in these positions.

    That said: the professoriate does need to acknowledge its place in this ecosystem. If the public believes “that universities are rife with enormous salaries and privilege”: aren’t they? Would we not do well to recognize that we do enjoy enormous privilege? While the salaries at both my employer schools do not compare to Ontario’s (I’m a little astonished by these, to be honest, inflation or no), I am paid well and decently to talk, write, and read about things that matter to ME. Is this not the very definition of the privileged existence? And one from which many, many others are excluded, for reasons of structure (hiring administrators over teachers) or societal (white and middle-class) preference. Sure, we work hard, but a lot of other people work a lot harder or in more difficult circumstances, and at the end of the day, we’re pretty damn lucky to be where we are.

    So yes, it's easy to pile on the presidents/vice-presidents/vice-vice-associate-assistant-presidents-in-charge-of-flowerpots (or, too, the research-only positions that attract prestige more than classroom value). Yes, we should work in an environment in which teaching and learning are publicly and literally valued above all else. And yes, we should work toward making that an environment where administrators from presidents down treat their role with a sense of public service and humility. But as you've said elsewhere, Aimee, the tenured/mid-career/associate and full professors need to use their positions of security to effect change at the university. Perhaps it is a direct equation: more administration equals fewer teachers. But we’re in the mix somewhere too. I just think we need to acknowledge our own salaried interests even as we argue for greater parity and opportunity for others.

    Clearly I’ve not absorbed much of the American Dream yet – or maybe it’s just Toby Zeigler’s American Dream rather than Horatio Alger’s.


  3. Hi Claire. What I'm getting at is not that (tenured) faculty are not well paid. We are, as I hope to have made clear. What I'm getting at is that the president's compensation is an order of magnitude higher than the next most privileged group: tenured professors. And that's nothing compared to the poverty-level wages being made by those whom the public often conflates with professors: adjuncts, and graduate students, and limited-term faculty. It is very hard for the general public to reconcile that most of the teaching of the university is done by people who make an order of magnitude less than *I* do, to teach the same classes, and I make an order of magnitude less than the president. They imagine that the university is a privileged space with red wine and jazz music and summer homes for all. And there is nothing further from the truth. Only a diminishing fraction of us remain secure and well paid.


  4. HKHClaire's point about privilege is a good one. I don't believe the general public has difficulty understanding that the university President makes big money, the high-level admins and other tenured profs great money, CLAs and sessionals with many courses good money, and adjuncts very little money. I believe that the problem is that this reconciles *easily* with the general public's experience of work in the private sector. Sadly, it's not surprising to me that people feel little sympathy for university teachers, even though, having worked as an adjunct, I know that the complaints are legitimate. Even when I made $19 000, I had more privilege (support of a union, partial health benefits some of the time, flexible time, work that I loved and had trained to do, safe working conditions) in my precarious position within the university than many in the private sector in Canada will ever enjoy.

    What I'm thinking about a lot lately is how to build solidarity across sectors. The beginning of that, I think, is thinking about who we're speaking to when we speak about privilege.


  5. I am supportive of this article. Adjuncts and contract workers are becoming radicalized (hopefully, more and more) and faculty should support what they want. At the same time, I agree with Aimee's argument about the order of magnitude. Those high salaries, coupled with some leaders who just don't do their jobs, are hard to see. My institution just received yet another punishing budget cut, and my president (who is now leaving) had the gall to praise the government for not cutting us more. Meanwhile, regular university professors who are not also consultants, surgeons, etc. are being blamed for having salaries which are too high, not VPs, not the ever-increasing risk management and HR offices. My dept. is operating with a skeleton staff, no phones, and aging classrooms. We are all about to receive wage rollbacks, from an administration which has ballooned in the last decade. That same admin. is going to raise tuition as soon as the government lets it. We are never going to change these things (including for contract teachers) if we don't, all of us, start calling out these problems publically, when we see them, and then work through our staff associations and unions to change them.


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