Does it look bad to give the University of Maine System’s vice chancellor for administration and finance a $40,000 raise at a time when the system is facing a $36 million budget shortfall? Absolutely. It’s a public relations nightmare.
But that doesn’t mean the board of trustees made the wrong decision. Rather, they came to a calculated conclusion: It was better to keep Rebecca Wyke and increase her salary than lose her to a higher education institution out of state, where she was a finalist for a position that would have paid her more. Wyke has been so invested in reforming the system that “losing her would have been disastrous,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Sam Collins.
If the system wants to retain staff who can make difficult financial determinations and who have extensive experience with the campuses and state government, it must offer competitive wages. It’s unhelpful, as many have done, to point out the difference between her new $205,000 annual salary and the wages most people earn in Maine or the university system. They’re not for the same work.
Wyke is the principal adviser to the chancellor and trustees on financial and administrative operations of the system and its seven universities, meaning she is responsible for financial management, human resource administration, technology planning and property management.
She could easily earn far more than her new salary if she worked in the private sector or the public sector in a different state. The median salary for a vice chancellor at universities that award doctorate degrees in the U.S. is $326,863, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. (She now receives the same pay as head men’s ice hockey coach Dennis Gendron.)
The trustees could have avoided the negative publicity by letting Wyke go and hiring someone with less institutional knowledge at a salary similar to hers now. Few likely would have complained. But it would have done the system a disservice. Wyke is overseeing much of the restructuring of the seven universities — a difficult and essential job — and letting her walk out the door would have dealt those efforts a major blow.
We understand the angry reaction from the public and lawmakers. How dare the system increase the pay of an administrator when people are losing their jobs? But it’s important to keep the broader view in mind. If done right, a leaner, more competitively priced workforce can result in more productive, financially sound universities.
How will the system set itself on a sustainable course? State funding for the universities has declined over the last 20 years both as a percentage of the state budget and as a percentage of the university system’s budget. State support for capital infrastructure improvements has declined. The economic recovery is weak. The number of Maine high school graduates will keep declining, taking enrollment with it.
Meanwhile, the system must compete for faculty from across the world, keep tuition low, keep up with transformations in the way education is delivered and compete successfully with private institutions. Would you want to be in charge of ensuring the system’s viability?
Since 2007, the system has eliminated 520 full-time positions, representing 9.6 percent of its workforce. Twenty-six percent of its administrative positions have been cut, 8.5 percent of salaried and hourly employees, and 10 percent of the faculty.
Don’t begrudge Wyke her compensation. Rather, hold her to it. For instance, she helped identify savings of $3 million for fiscal year 2015 by consolidating both procurement and information technology services. How else can she, and others, aid strategic restructuring and ensure more intercampus coordination? The truth is that the system urgently needs to change. But it certainly won’t happen on its own. The right people need to push it.