Higher Education

Big payouts draw scrutiny to perks for Massachusetts public college chiefs

Presidential benefits get unwanted attention just as schools appeal for more money

Sister Margaret Leonard is awarded an honorary degree by University of Massachusetts-Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley, left, during UMass Boston commencement, Friday, May 29, 2009 in Boston.

Like almost all other Massachusetts public university and college leaders, Keith Motley is entitled to a housing allowance or house, a car, and free tuition for himself and his family members, and can cash in all of his unused vacation days and 20 percent of any unused sick days on retirement.

If the University of Massachusetts Boston chancellor leaves his job, he’d still be eligible for a one-year sabbatical at his full annual salary of $355,059. Then he’s guaranteed a position on the faculty, if he wants one, at a minimum of $280,000 a year. If Motley were to be fired without cause? The university would have to pay him up to one year’s wages.

“That sounds absolutely ridiculous,” said Daniel Baxter, a sophomore from Somerville majoring in information technology at UMass. “For doing nothing for a year? That’s insane in any industry.”

In fact, in higher education, benefits like these are not unusual. But they’re coming under increased scrutiny in Massachusetts.

Presidents and other top administrators at state schools are provided houses, cars, free tuition for their spouses and children, paid-for dues at country clubs and other perks, according to documents obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Some are eligible for bonuses of up to $201,000 per year, based on meeting performance goals the public can’t see.

These revelations come as many of the schools continue to increase tuition and appeal to the legislature for more money, and as Gov. Charlie Baker has been pushing them to cut costs.

They also follow the disclosure that the former president of Bridgewater State University was paid nearly $270,000 for unused sick days and vacation time when he retired, and was given a consulting contract on top of his $183,421 annual state pension.

“For most regular people who don’t have access to this sort of thing—who pay the bills associated with their kids’ tuition or their own—this is the kind of thing that really grates on people,” Baker said in an interview, referring to the presidents’ and chancellors’ benefits. “There’s a credibility issue here.”

Accrued sick time and vacation payments aren’t the only perks that higher education leaders are entitled to. Presidents of Massachusetts community colleges also are in line for up to six months’ salary in the event they’re fired without cause, their contracts show.For the presidents of Greenfield Community College and Salem State University, and the chancellors of all the University of Massachusetts campuses, it’s as much as one year’s wages.

Even if they were dismissed under such circumstances, the chancellors could return to faculty jobs at guaranteed annual salaries of between $240,000 and $480,000, according to their contracts. If they quit, the chancellors of UMass Amherst, UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School each could also take up to a year’s sabbatical—a type of leave for academics to do research related to their work—at full pay.

‘Doesn’t help our message’

The UMass campuses also put as much as $47,000 a year apiece into annuities, on top of base salaries, for their chancellors, letting them set that money aside for their retirements.

These benefits are common on American campuses. More than 60 percent of presidents at public and private colleges get all or part of their housing provided, for example, and 75 percent get cars or car allowances, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. In Massachusetts, almost all of them get both.

Carlos Santiago, the state’s commissioner of higher education, said the housing provided to chancellors and presidents is often used in their official roles for entertaining. But he has ordered an investigation of the rules governing sick and vacation time.

“This really doesn’t help, obviously, our message of high quality and affordable education,” he said. 

Such benefits extend beyond chancellors and presidents. If they’re removed for any reason, after at least four years on the job, state university and community college administrators are entitled to as much as six months’ pay; administrators at UMass get up to one year, depending on how long they’ve worked there.

They also get at least 15 days of sick leave — nearly three times the median number of sick days for American workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — plus 22 vacation days at the community colleges and at least 20 at UMass, twice the U.S. median.

Most can also carry over up to 64 vacation days, and, when they retire, cash those in for their full value. And for many, if they retire with more than 64, those days are added to any unused sick days, for which they can get one fifth of the cash value.

When Bridgewater State President Dana Mohler-Faria left his post, he cashed in carried-over vacation and sick days for $269,984, as the Boston Business Journal first reported. He also was given a contract to work as a consultant for $100,000 a year, but has since agreed to give up getting paid for that role. Mohler-Faria didn’t respond to a phone message.

When he steps down in July, Holyoke Community College President William Messner will be eligible, as of the most recent pay period, for $44,710 in unused vacation and sick time, the college reports.

Only 12 percent of employers nationwide pay departing workers for any portion of unused sick time, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

And few if any other Massachusetts state employees can convert excess vacation days into sick days and get paid for them. Nor does this perk apply to people who work at any of the UMass campuses.

“We’re looking into that benefit because we have questions about whether it should be what it is,” said Santiago. “We’re trying to figure out why it started in the first place… We haven’t really got the best of answers at this point.”

The UMass system is also reviewing its policies governing vacation days, spokesman Robert Connolly said, though he said that any changes for union employees would have to be negotiated.

Free tuition! (for administrators’ kids)

Spokesmen for the chancellors of UMass Amherst, Boston, and the medical school referred most questions to Marty Meehan, the system’s president, or didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meehan, whose job includes negotiating the chancellor’s contracts, declined through Connolly to be interviewed. Other administrators or spokespeople for their schools were also asked to comment. Most declined.

UMass “seeks to spend public funds as wisely as possible” and “strives to establish compensation and benefit policies that allow it to attract and retain outstanding faculty, administrators and staff,” Connolly said in a written statement.

College presidents know what pay and perquisites are available on the national market and have full freedom to switch employers, said Raymond Cotton, a lawyer with the Boston-based firm Mintz-Levin who advises both presidents and boards of trustees in contract negotiations.

But the idea that good candidates won’t apply for college presidencies without generous incentives is hard to prove, said Saranna Thornton, a labor economist at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

“The people who keep citing this don’t ever point to an empirical study that shows they have to offer these particular salaries or these particular benefits to get talent,” Thornton said.

Among the standard perks for Massachusetts public university and college administrators are free tuition at their own or any other state school for themselves, their spouses and dependent children who meet admission standards.

That’s a benefit that increasingly touches a nerve among parents and a tuition-paying public squeezed by the ever-rising price of college, which has prompted scrutiny of free tuition for university employees in states including Arizona, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Asked how much it costs, statewide, the Massachusetts departments of Education, Higher Education, and Administration and Finance couldn’t provide a figure.

Though no money changes hands when tuition is waived, “if they admit one less paying student, then the school is losing money on it,” Thornton said.

Cape Cod Community College also paid toward a doctoral degree for Walter Brooks, its vice president for finance and operations, on top of his $133,670 salary, documents show. Brooks said he had that perk in his former job, and the college gave it to him because it couldn’t offer him more money. “It is a competitive market,” he said. “This isn’t anything unusual.”

At UMass Medical School, Executive Vice Chancellor Terence Flotte’s contract requires the university to pay full tuition and fees at any of the four UMass undergraduate campuses for his three children, or the equivalent of full UMass Amherst tuition and fees at any college they attend.

A spokeswoman said Flotte was given the benefit because he, too, had it in his previous job. She said it has cost $13,258 per year over the last three years. Flotte is paid $564,807 and is eligible for an annual bonus of up to 30 percent, or about $169,442.

Secret performance goals

Nearly four in 10 presidents and chancellors in U.S. schools are entitled to bonuses, the consulting firm Yaffe & Company reports. In Massachusetts, all the UMass chancellors are due them, adding as much as 30 percent to their salaries. That works out to a range of up to $71,012 for UMass Boston’s Motley, to $201,000 for UMass Medical’s Michael Collins.

Connolly said the public can’t see the performance goals on which bonuses are based because they’re part of chancellors’ personnel files, and neither the universities nor the system central office would disclose how much money in bonuses the chancellors have received, saying they weren’t able to find those numbers over the course of more than a week.

Figures obtained from the state comptroller’s office, however, show that Motley, Collins, and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy last year received payments in excess of their base salaries by at least the full amount of the bonuses for which they were eligible.

Ryan Bamford, the athletic director at UMass Amherst, also has bonus clauses in his contract. He can earn up to $37,500 on top of his $250,000-a-year salary for meeting certain winning percentages or if UMass teams win championships, and an additional $25,000 if he gains membership for the school in the Football Bowl Subdivision Conference. Bamford has so far gotten bonuses for championships in field hockey, swimming, and indoor track. The university also provides him with a car and pays his annual dues to a country club.

Such arrangements are common for athletic directors at Division 1 schools, according to UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. Club memberships “enhance the visibility of the athletic director and to entertain key external constituents,” Bloguszewski said.

UMass Boston Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Gina Cappello gets a bonus of $10,000 above her salary of $224,648 for meeting annual fundraising targets and another $10,000 if she reaches the $100 million goal of a campaign that has so far topped $62 million.

The package for Joyce Murphy, executive vice chancellor for the consulting division at UMass Medical, includes a bonus of up to 30 percent, or $140,454, on top of her $468,180 annual salary. Mark Klempner, executive vice chancellor of MassBiologics, which helps develop products from the school’s research, can also get up to 30 percent, or $143,575, above his $478,584 pay.

Overriding a veto from Gov. Baker, the legislature last year added more than $5 million to his proposed budget for the UMass system, though it declined to restore another $11 million the universities requested. A new proposal would pump an additional $95 million a year into UMass; the governor has proposed a smaller increase.

“They just go back to the taxpayers and the thing they always use is the threat that costs will go up if their demands aren’t met,” said Paul Craney, executive director of the conservative-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “The money’s not real to them. That’s the problem.”

Some institutions were slow to provide contracts and other documents on employee benefits. While half supplied them without charge, the rest demanded fees in amounts that, after an appeal, the secretary of state’s office found to be excessive in every case but one. Critics have complained that state agencies impose high fees to block access to public records. A proposal in the legislature to overhaul the state’s public-records law would, among other things, limit such fees.

Santiago said he hopes to balance fair compensation with controlling costs.

“If we can change this to a system that really takes into account the issues of affordability and still attracts the talent and gets the right kind of balance,” Santiago said, “we’re going to do that.”

This story appears courtesy The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir.org), an independent, nonprofit news outlet based at Boston University and WGBH News in Boston. Boston University, a competitor of Massachusetts public colleges, does not participate in NECIR story selection or the center’s editorial process. NECIR interns Bret Hauff and Shaz Sajadi contributed to this report.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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