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.