Questioning President Roth on Wesleyan’s Rising Tuition, His Half-Million Dollar Salary, and Excessive Public Praise
I’ve been at Wesleyan for almost three years now, and throughout that time I have often flipped through the pages of the Argus to see if anyone had finally made the effort to coherently challenge the leadership style and executive decisions of our President, Michael S. Roth. I emphasize the word coherently because I far too frequently—at times on a weekly basis—would read criticisms of President Roth written in the form of nonsensical rambling by Martin Benjamin ’57. I have neither the time nor the energy to write regular pieces for the Argus drawing attention to President Roth’s shortcomings on both policy and accountability—my family is, after all, paying over $57,500 per year (until tuition increases next year) for me to study here as an upperclassman—so I’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible in this Wespeak.
As I see it, there are three egregious problems facing Wesleyan about which there is little to no discussion—not amongst friends, not in the Argus, not even on Facebook. The three problems are: 1) Wesleyan’s excessively high (currently averaging about $57,000) and still-rising tuition; 2) President Roth’s excessively high salary ($564,007 per year) during a time when many Wesleyan families, and more generally families sending children to college everywhere, are struggling to keep pace with rising tuitions; and 3) The excessive amount of praise and dearth of scrutiny President Roth receives for being “a public intellectual, teacher, blogger, booster [huh?] and, most important, leader” (the words of Board of Trustees Chair Joshua Boger ’73 and good example of the excessive praise). If you’re seeing a trend of excess, you’re on the right track. In a time of economic struggle, why are Wesleyan families being asked to pay more and more, and why is President Roth paid so much money and receiving praise left and right for strong leadership?
To address the first problem, excessively high tuition, the first question I think President Roth and the Board of Trustees have to answer is: Why is tuition rising at the rapid rate that it has been? I’ve heard President Roth’s response, and find it completely rhetorical: “Although we are mindful of the difficulties inherent in annual tuition increases, in order to maintain our high quality liberal arts programs and our scholar-teacher model, we must increase tuition in the coming year.” (Argus Friday, March 25, 2011) That was the justification for this year’s (’11-’12) tuition increase of 3.8%. What about next year’s (’12-’13) tuition increase, which has yet to be announced?
There happens to be an economic index, the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) that is specifically intended for colleges and universities to use when determining tuition increases, which factors into its calculation “faculty salaries, administrative salaries, clerical salaries, service employee salaries, fringe benefits, miscellaneous services, supplies and materials, and utilities.” For the past two years, 2010 and 2011, the HEPI was 0.9% and 2.3%, respectively. A quick search through the Wesleyan Connection archives shows the ’10-’11 tuition increase was 5%. To reiterate, the rates of inflation for colleges and universities in 2010 and 2011 were 0.9% and 2.3% when Wesleyan’s tuition rose 5% and 3.8% in those years, respectively.
When tuition increases are outpacing inflation fivefold one year, and almost twofold the following year, in a time of great economic uncertainty for the majority of people, how do President Roth and Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees justify such decisions? If concrete examples of expanded academic, athletic, or extracurricular services were being provided, then I may be able to see the value in raising tuition, but Wesleyan seems pretty much the same to me now as it did my Freshman year, and my family is stuck footing $5,174 more now than then ($56,036 ’11-’12 tuition minus $50,862 ’09-’10 tuition, both full tuitions for underclassmen). So that leads to the second question, closely related to the first: What benefits are students getting out of our astronomically high and ever-rising tuitions?
The second problem, President Roth’s $564,007 per year salary, is another of great concern. Recently President Roth and his wife, University Professor of Letters Kari Weil, donated $100,000 to financial aid. What was the reaction from the Board of Trustees and wider Wesleyan community? One characteristic of problem three: excessive praise. Announcing the gift, Joshua Boger said, “Their support of financial aid underscores Michael’s and Kari’s superb leadership and dedication to Wesleyan’s success.” I see it differently. Barack Obama, President of the United States, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and person tasked with overseeing the federal U.S. political system, receives a total compensation of $400,000 per year. President Roth makes $164,007 more than that per year, so he could make a $100,000 contribution to financial aid, every year and still have $64,007 on top of the U.S. Presidential salary.
Why is President Roth being paid this kind of money? Is it because he writes books about memory and trauma that spread his name around elite higher education circles (and also happen to make him more money!)? Is it because he blogs on Wesleyan’s homepage and the Huffington Post (Shameless plug: I blog frequently on my personal website, www.josepheodonnell.com, but unfortunately don’t make over $500,000 per year for it…)? Is it because he teaches one class per semester (as opposed to the two or more that other professors teach) and has another professor (Joe Fitzpatrick) grade the papers students write for his class? Is it because he is great at delegating tasks to a team of administrators who carry out whatever he says? Or is it perhaps because he travels the country and world wining and dining with Wesleyan alumni on the University’s dime to solicit major donations? The list could go on, but it seems like an indefensibly high salary no matter how many responsibilities—though these honestly sound more like leisure activities—there may be in President Roth’s job description. Any way you look at it, President Roth has a significantly less strenuous and much more luxurious job than President Obama and yet earns a yearly salary more than 25% higher than Obama’s.
This leads me to problem three: the excessive public praise President Roth receives. In light of the facts that tuition has been increasing at a rate far higher than inflation (measured by HEPI) and President Roth’s yearly salary is over 10 times that of an average American (Median American Income, Census Bureau), it seems people are completely missing the forest for the trees when they praise him for his scholarship on memory and trauma, his blogging, and a token donation of $100,000 to financial aid that will have less of an impact next year than this year due to the soon-to-be-announced tuition increase for next year. Why does everyone—trustees, parents, and even students impressed by his charisma—continue to lavish President Roth with praise rather than demand substantive answers to the unsustainable tuition raises and exorbitant administrative compensation happening under his watch?
What we’ve seen up to this point has been lofty rhetoric about preserving the excellence of our liberal arts education, without any concrete examples that demonstrate how exactly that’s happening. Meanwhile, President Roth is laughing all the way to the bank.
Even though I’m pretty sure President Roth will pay this Wespeak no attention—as he did the calls to bring back Zonker Harris Day until his reputation was under enough pressure—I hope you, the tuition-paying, potentially financial-aid receiving and/or student-loaning, students do pay attention and start to speak out. I hope this Wespeak will spur a demand for greater accountability and transparency in our administration. Write Wespeaks yourselves, e-mail President Roth (firstname.lastname@example.org) and encourage your parents, many of whom are footing the bill for you to be here, to do the same. While the sit-in protesting tactics employed during the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are unfortunately no longer practiced to demand change, we are not powerless and forced to resign on these problems. Use the speaking and writing skills you’ve been honing for $57,000 per year and spread the word to friends and family of the importance of reforming Wesleyan’s backwards financial management. Boycott with your wallet: publically pledge not to donate any money to Wesleyan after graduation until major reforms are made.
Until I see such changes start to take place, Wesleyan will not be receiving a dime of my future salary (and I plan on giving much of my money away). I’ll be sending my children to Rutgers, UConn, or other affordable State University in whichever state I end up living in the future. This is what my dad did for his undergraduate and medical degrees (Rutgers), for which he passed up attending the University of Pennsylvania due to a much higher tuition at that time. While I hope my kids will not be associated with financially vampiric institutions like Wesleyan unless a complete restructuring of the school’s economic model takes place, I’ll be telling those who do choose to attend, the diggers of the deep moat of debt around the prestigious liberal arts Ivory Towers, to be especially wary of hackneyed and meaningless rhetoric like “[we must increase tuition to] maintain our high quality liberal arts programs,” and “our scholar-teacher model.”
I’ll begin the consideration of reforms with a modest proposal for President Roth to show some shared sacrifice, some real “superb leadership and dedication to Wesleyan’s success,” and lower his annual salary to that of his predecessor, President Doug Bennet, in his final year in 2006: $412,974. President Roth will still have President Obama beat by $12,979 per year, and the extra $150,000 can go to financial aid every year (over his recently renewed 7-year contract, that’s over $1 million going to financial aid! How about that for impressive leadership?). I have many more reform ideas myself, but I’m more curious to hear what other students’ half-million dollar (literally) questions and ideas are. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at email@example.com, but more importantly I encourage you to contact President Michael Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org and Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts at email@example.com and demand some straight answers.
O’Donnell is a member of the Class of 2013.