A new pay way at N.C. State?

UNC system officials play a risky and inappropriate game on a chancellor’s pay.

January 15, 2013 

It is not that Randy Woodson, the amiable and unifying chancellor of N.C. State University, isn’t worth every cent of the new, generous compensation package the University of North Carolina system has fashioned for him. The former Purdue University provost and executive vice president who took over at NCSU in 2010 seems to be popular with students, faculty and alums, and he has made it clear he wants to reach out to the community and build on the progress at the university’s Centennial Campus.

But UNC system officials, apparently responding to reports that University of Florida officials viewed Woodson as a front-runner for the president’s job, should not have created an outside-the-box bonus, called a “retention payment,” of $112,630. The money is coming, system officials say, from nonstate funds, though they don’t yet know from where they will get it. NCSU also will create a retirement savings plan for annual contributions equal to 10 percent of Woodson’s salary, which, thanks to a $63,000 raise, now will be $495,000.

There are a few problems with what has been done for Woodson, none of them reflecting poorly on him. Rather, the judgment of UNC Board of Governors’ members and President Tom Ross is questionable, though perhaps they are well-intentioned.

Public and private funds

It’s simply not a good idea to inject nonpublic funds into the compensation of public university officials at this level. Supplements of this kind run the risk of obligating the beneficiaries to athletics boosters or foundations or other individuals or groups who are providing the money. Woodson is a person of high integrity to be sure. But this type of arrangement could put him in a very awkward position.

The chancellor, any chancellor, is a public employee, paid by the people (and very well-paid) to work for the people, period.

Then there is the matter of public service. No one expects Woodson or any other public employee, from the lowest rungs on the pay ladder to the highest, to work for nothing in the name of serving the people. (Although sometimes it seems we expect that of woefully underpaid public school teachers.)

But, to a great degree, people typically work in the public arena out of that sense to service. William Friday, late president of the UNC system, turned down many raises in the course of his 30 years of service, and he declined many opportunities to go elsewhere for more money. There were rewards, he felt, in working in a public institution that didn’t exist in the private sector.

Effects elsewhere

Yet another “side effect” of this action is that trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill, now seeking a new chancellor, will undoubtedly demand a comparable salary for their incoming hire – and a comparable benefits package, which will be even more expensive for the UNC system and, therefore, the public.

Where does this end? Because of the prestige of the UNC system, the chancellors of its two largest schools are always subject to courtship from other institutions. Will the Board of Governors be raising those salaries with every job offer?

And what about the system’s other institutions, where the alumni bases are not as affluent and the resources are not there to engage in bidding wars with suitors from other schools? This type of action is liable to create internal resentment, and no wonder.

Private money in the mix with public salaries feels like an oil-and-water problem. Perhaps that’s why UNC officials initially declined to even talk about the deal, before they released what obviously are public records. Did some have doubts? They should have.

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