University of Texas President Cites College Affordability, Refuses $1 Million Salary

May 19th 2015

Laura Donovan

Money isn't everything to incoming University of Texas-Austin President Gregory Fenves, who turned down a $1 million base salary when he was given the job.

In April, various outlets reported that Fenves, the current executive vice president and provost, would assume the role of college president and get paid $750,000. The Austin American-Statesman, however, discovered via an open-records request that Fenves declined the initial $1 million offering, writing in an email that it would be “too high for a public university” and unfair given the current costs of higher education.

In addition to wanting a lower salary, Fenves asked for a 10 percent bonus instead of the 12 percent proposal he received shortly before interviewing with the UT System Board of Regents. Thanks to his negotiation, Fenves will receive a $750,000 salary plus $50,000 in deferred pay, totaling $800,000 before the bonus.

"With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature on matters important to the university,” Fenves wrote in an email. "It will attract widespread negative attention from students and faculty given the difficult budgetary constraints of the past five years."

In 2011, Texas lawmakers approved a $1 billion education budget plan reduction, leading to a state university funding decline of roughly 7 percent for the following academic year. Texas's main financial aid programs experienced a 15 percent budget decrease as well.

"We have just concluded one of the most challenging legislative sessions in recent Texas history," Jim Spaniolo, president of the University of Texas-Arlington, wrote in a letter at the time. "The state revenue reductions continue to be both persistent and pervasive."

Considering the long-term damage of these cuts, Fenves's demand for less money seems to be in the university's best interest. Fenves will take over for Bill Powers, whose base salary is $624,350. Hillary Hart, a former faculty council executive committee chair at UT-Austin, told The Huffington Post that the university community is happy about Fenves's push for a lower compensation.

"This is a way of really putting his money where his mouth is -- or really, putting his lower salary where his mouth is,” Hart said. “The faculty are really delighted.”

Even though Texas A&M University President Michael Young has a $1 million salary, Bill Hammond, the chief executive officer of the Texas Association of Business, told Inside Higher Education that the conversation shouldn't surround one president accepting a larger compensation package than a fellow Texas state college president.

“It’s not about that Texas A&M’s [president] is making too much,” Hammond said. “It’s about that [Fenves] was willing to make a very personal statement about the cost of higher ed.”

In 2013, nine public university presidents earned more than $1 million annually. Given the nature of college debt in this country, big salaries for college presidents can seem out of touch to students who may never be able to pay off their loans. Last year, a study conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies found that colleges with the highest paid presidents have more students in debt and are more dependent on part-time adjunct instructors, who are paid significantly less than full-time tenured faculty members and get fewer hours.

"Presiding over a public university should not be a ticket to extreme wealth,” report co-author Dr. Marjorie Wood of the Institute for Policy Studies said in 2014.

As shown in Fenves's request for a lower salary, however, not all university presidents are driven by high pay. University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart accepted a nearly 25 percent pay cut after leaving Temple University, earning $560,500 for the 2012-2013 school-year.

"Nobody is starving at my house," President Hart told The Chronicle.