“Certainly bad optics”: Amid University-wide cutbacks, upper administrative salaries stay high

Almost eight years ago, the University began a fundraising campaign at the directions of President John Bravman, aiming to raise $400 million to fund its future academic endeavors. Four years later, in 2017, that goal was surpassed by over $100 million, representing the efforts of over 44,000 parents, alumni, and community members. The ambitious campaign earned him the adulation of the higher education community as well as a means to fund several infrastructural marvels––and, in 2018, Bravman received a $170,000 bonus to his overall compensation package for that year. This amount was described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as “bonus pay,” the “value of all bonuses and incentive compensation earned by the chief executive.” That same report attests that the President’s base salary in 2017 was $679k, and his total compensation (including salary, retirement and benefits) was $789k; in a 2018 filing, by contrast, Bravman’s salary rose to $938k with a total compensation package of over $1 million. 

In March of 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic wrought irreparable damage on university finances––at large and small, public and private institutions alike––who then had to make deep, abiding cuts to close widening budget shortfalls. The University campus was not immune to these budget cuts; while it has not laid off or furloughed any professors, and has given many the option to work from home, the University has imposed stopgap measures (such as hiring freezes, deferring building renovations and reducing operating expenses) while substantially restricting campus activities to mitigate the economic and human ramifications of the pandemic. 

Over a year later and with two and a half semesters of the pandemic learning, this “rhetoric of austerity,” according to several faculty sources, has continued to suffuse internal University conversations: “faculty and staff have had two years without cost of living increases in pay. We have watched our academic programs suffer from understaffing. Salary freezes have eliminated nearly an entire four-year merit-cycle for certain faculty, leaving productivity in teaching, scholarship, and service unrewarded. All at a time when tuition continues to rise, and staff face likely cuts in benefits,” wrote Professor of English Michael Drexler, Associate Professor of Anthropology Clare Sammells, Professor of Art History Roger Rothman and Professor of Education Sue Ellen Henry in a Mar. 30, 2021 email to the Faculty Council.

According to professors, these new cuts have fallen particularly hard on the College of Arts and Sciences––long a victim of relatively declining investment and interest even before the onset of COVID-19. “I heard a really discouraging piece of news today,” Professor of English Michael Drexler shared with The Bucknellian in a recent interview. “Of new sophomores declaring [any] humanities majors, there’s only 95. When I started here in 2003, we were getting 50 new English majors each sophomore class.” 

Yet as departments across the curriculum languish amid cutbacks and generalized lack of resources, faculty argue, one expense has escaped such reductions almost unscathed: the president’s salary. It now takes twenty full-paying students to cover [the President’s] total compensation,” the letter states. Even with the 20% summer-period pay-cut, President Bravman’s overall salary constitutes “nearly nine times the average Bucknell Full Professor’s compensation. Unsurprisingly, he remains one of the top paid university executives in the country.”

The President’s salary, of course, is not simply set according to his own preference; according to Director of Media Relations Mike Ferlazzo, “[t]he Board of Trustees sets the president’s compensation, which includes an annual salary, non-annual performance-based and contractual supplemental payments,” and other benefits associated with the position. Ferlazzo also elaborated on the decision-making process that resulted in the salary increase, noting that “[t]he Board’s methodology includes an analysis of data from organizations that have similar jobs and levels of complexity, length of service compared to national norms, and other performance metrics.”

In an interview with The Bucknellian earlier in the month, Associate Professor of Anthropology Clare Sammells emphasized the distinction made by Ferlazzo, adding that steadily increasing administrative pay is an established trend at many institutions across the country. “I worry that people will see this as something to do with John, while really this is a problem being faced in many higher ed[ucation] institutions,” she noted.  

Professor of Education Sue Ellen Henry acknowledged that much of the trepidation about the raise owes to its rather unfortunate timing––specifically, that it came at the same time as a number of “austerity” measures imposed on faculty and staff. “The timing is certainly bad optics; you cannot cut departmental and program budgets by 5% and then increase the president’s salary in such a substantial manner. If money was flowing in and everyone’s boats were being raised in the harbor then one would expect admin[istration] salaries to rise as well, but that does not seem to be the case,” she observed.

The phenomenon at the University is a microcosm of a larger national trend in higher education, which conceptualizes education as fundamentally preparation for employment. In the process, universities tend to depreciate those experiences––like many of those offered in the College of Arts and Sciences––which don’t measurably increase the student’s labor-market value. Across the country, this managerial mindset has resulted in declining enrollment, department cuts and greater emphasis on high-return fields such as business and engineering. The precipitous rise in tuition over the past decades and resultant student debt crisis is one manifestation of this trend. “This isn’t just about Bucknell. We have to be concerned about our own community, colleagues and students, but we also have to look at this in the context of what is happening in higher education more generally,” Sammells acknowledged. 

Despite these persistent problems, Sammells argues, it is certainly possible for the University to emerge from this quagmire by seriously reflecting on how it values faculty and staff, as well as the investment and hiring practices which embody those values. To help facilitate this reflection, Sammells is asking faculty and staff to provide information on their yearly compensation. She hopes this effort will encourage greater pay transparency at the University; “with better information we can all as a community look at this straight on [to] see what that inequality looks like and hopefully do something to rectify it,” she shared.

The disagreement strikes right at the heart of the University’s liberal arts philosophy. The University’s current arrangement affords precipitously higher raises to upper administration while undervaluing (at times even eliminating) crucial resources for faculty to deliver a quality educational experience. On the other hand, it is certainly possible for universities to meaningfully compete by reinvesting in its academic functions, and by ensuring that teachers and staff are paid consistent with their contributions to the campus community. “Who knows, maybe we can be a model for how to do this better?” Sammells noted towards the end of our interview, flashing a brief smile. “How great would that be?”

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