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The Bountiful Table:

Generous Pay Raises for 80th
Street and College Presidents;
Crumbs for Faculty and Staff


What’s wrong with it?  They get paid for the work we do.

PSC President 

What’s wrong with CUNY’s executive salary increase? Just about everything. From the way they were approved to the message they send to the people of New York, the raises of up to $100,000 a year for CUNY’s top management are a low point in CUNY’s history. They deliver an insult to the faculty and staff, they signal the entrenchment of “corporate CUNY,” and they laugh in the face of students who pay 25% more in tuition and adjuncts who live on salaries of $20,000.  

I have no interest in personal attack or in suggesting that CUNY managers don’t deserve to be paid fairly. We all know there are presidents and executives who work hard. But that’s not the point. The point is the priorities expressed by these raises, the inequity they create, and the way they reward managers for the work of faculty, staff and students. So while there’s no reason for personal attack, there’s also no reason to internalize our own embarrassment about other people’s big salaries and maintain a protective silence. CUNY is a public institution and its salaries are a public issue. 

Clearly the national trend is for academic administrators to model themselves on corporate bosses rather than professors, with salaries to match. Let’s not forget, though, that for most of the history of higher education, deans, provosts and even presidents were members of the faculty who returned to the faculty after a stint in administration, with a relatively small differential in salary.      

Given the current market-model higher education system, I’m not going to argue that CUNY managers should be underpaid. No one at CUNY should be underpaid – but that includes the faculty and staff. 


The conceptual problem with the increases is that they confuse value with price. If I’m right, one motive behind the big raises was to increase CUNY’s market value. Pay the presidents and the chancellor major league salaries, the thinking goes, and you automatically make CUNY a major-league university. This thinking is the real disaster for CUNY. It’s the same substitution of investment at the top for investment in the whole that we see in management’s contract demands, which ask for major concessions on our part and an expansion of management’s ability to pay a few employees over the union scale. The priorities are clear, and they’re wrong. With a basically flat budget last year, and with faculty, staff and students constantly being told to “do more with less” (I’m quoting an actual memo from one college management), CUNY’s Board of Trustees has come up with $2.1 million in raises at the top. How can there be money for that and no money to restore Welfare Fund benefits, no money to hire faculty counselors, no money for grad student health insurance, no money even for chalk in the classrooms? 


The absence of a public hearing on the proposed raises was the first offkey note. The proposed salary increases were presented as an addendum to the regular monthly report to the Board of Trustees, bypassing the normal process for public hearings in advance. But CUNY is a public institution and it should be publicly accountable for its budget; at a minimum the Trustees should have questioned why the salary proposal was shielded from advance scrutiny. (That’s why the City Council hearing on December 5 is so important; it will be the first forum for public discussion.) And while the Trustees were inside approving a total of $2.1 million in annual raises, PSC members were outside in teeming rain supporting Campus Equity Week and calling for an end to the gross underpayment of CUNY’s adjuncts. The irony wasn’t lost on us. 

There are further ironies, though. While the chancellor received an increase of 40% and several college presidents got raises of 9%, faculty and professional staff have yet to see an offer of a salary increase in this round of bargaining. Our contract expired more than a year ago, and we have been in negotiations for a new contract since May 23. For all the talk about “studying with the best” and the resurgence of CUNY, the chancellor’s office has not proposed the one thing

that would transform the University: competitive salaries and reasonable workloads for the faculty and staff. The “CUNY renaissance” will be short-lived if there is no comprehensive progress on these issues – people simply won’t stay. What’s the point of hiring sparkling new faculty if they will soon leave for places with better conditions? 

The Trustees counter that the chancellor hadn’t had a raise for four years. But CUNY faculty and staff languished for five years in the 1990s with 0% increases – and at the end of it we did not see raises of 40%. Nor were our salaries in the six-figure range to begin with. Salaries for CUNY faculty and staff still bear the imprint of the 1990s’ wage freezes, deepened by an erosion in real value that began in the late 1970s. Many of us remember a time when CUNY faculty and staff salaries were well known for their competitiveness; apparently the only salaries that need to be competitive now are management’s.   

That the management increases exacerbate existing inequity goes without saying. It’s one thing to cite the marketplace” of higher education, it’s another to marketize CUNY so much that the top salary is now 10 times larger than the salary of thousands of professional employees. The Enron-style gap in salary is especially jarring at CUNY, which has been kept afloat through two decades of budget cuts by the underpaying of part-timers who do most of the teaching.


We should be especially concerned by The New York Times report that half of the Chancellor’s $100,000 increase may come from the CUNY Research Foundation. The Research Foundation budget is generated primarily by the overhead on grants won by the faculty and staff. If the Times is right, then $50,000 annually for the Chancellor is being funded by our productivity and success as researchers. That doesn’t seem right to me, when those funds could be used for more grants or even for decent pay for RF employees. Many full-time employees of the Research Foundation haven’t had a raise in years. One RF employee at Kingsborough makes $20,100 after 19 years, another with the same length of service makes $22,500. Many earn even less. 

That management is being rewarded for our work may, finally, be the real injustice. If you look at the “performance goals” on which the presidents’ raises were based, you’ll see a remarkable pattern. Take my own campus, Queens College. Item after item on the list of “college targets” begins like this: “Faculty will....” Faculty will create new programs, win more grants, do more self-studies, form learning communities, increase the use of technology, create a new media lab, and on and on. All worthy objectives, but ones carried out by the faculty and professional staff on top of our existing workload.       

At BMCC, where the president was one of those who got the biggest raise among college executives, the goals include increasing the number of student research projects sponsored by faculty, developing proposals for new academic programs in areas such as health education, improving the pass rate on the College Preparatory Exam. Again, if these initiatives have been successful, they’ve succeeded because of the work of the faculty and staff.   

It is we, not the presidents, who give our e-mail addresses to students so they can send us drafts of their papers in the middle of the night; it’s we who tutor them when they’ve failed the CPE; it’s we who write the grants and do the research and develop the proposals for marketable new programs.  Add to this that some of the funding for the management raises comes directly from “savings” realized when professional staff retired and were not replaced, and you have a system massively out of joint.  

Top-heavy wages eat into the fabric of a university; they risk destroying the habit of cooperation that enables academic work.  And at CUNY, where we have endured scandalous underfunding, they shred the precious good will that has allowed all of us to keep going. It’s time for a public discussion of the issue and past time for equity in salaries for the rest of us.

Reprinted from December 2003 Clarion, page 11