President Robert Brown’s salary is perhaps the most commonly complained about thing at Boston University, aside from the cost of tuition itself. Everyone on campus seems to know of his seven-figure salary, or have at least seen a meme or two alluding to it.
On Sunday, the Chronicle of Higher Education released data on the highest paid university executives in the country. Brown’s name was seventh on the list, and first for Massachusetts. The most recent tax filings show his 2015 income to have been nearly $2.5 million — though that’s not exactly the norm. Roughly $1.2 million of that reflects a one-time payout that Brown took as a part of a supplemental retirement plan.
Either way, though, there’s no doubt that these figures are astronomical. It’s hard to even imagine those millions of dollars when the cost of tuition has so many BU students barely scraping by. But — and here’s the most important thing — not all of that is on Brown.
In fact, the reason he is paid so much in the first place is because he is worth the cost. The amount of donations he brings into the university alone easily outweighs the cost of his salary. Being the president of a school the size of BU is an incredibly hard job, and it is one he does quite well. He’s not perfect by any means, but he does do some great work for BU, and that is reflected in how high the Board of Trustees chooses to set his salary.
That’s not to say that $2,500,000 is a reasonable amount of money to make. It’s not. But the problem isn’t completely with Brown, or even with BU. University presidents nationwide are paid salaries on par with Brown’s own. And schools are almost forced to pay their administrators that much just to stay competitive, and to ensure they are being led by the best of the best. This year, Brown was paid almost double what he normally earns, and he was still a ways off the top of the chart.
The problem is with the larger trend that we are seeing — one where university administrators are paid more money in a single year than most people see in their lifetimes. 2015 saw a nine percent increase in presidents’ pay at private universities. That’s dangerous. The way we compensate our administrators encourages an income inequality that is far from what we should be striving for.
If nothing else, that kind of salary is a mess for morale. It’s so discouraging for students to look at a number like this without any real explanation for why it’s as high as it is. Because most students won’t really understand finances or economics or any of the more complex factors that go into setting a salary, but they will look at $2.5 million and know that something doesn’t feel right.
But still, our perception of Brown and the amount of money he makes is way off base. We like to imagine President Brown locked away in some tower, counting the stacks of cash he’s surrounded by. However, in the scheme of BU’s finances, even a number like $2.5 million isn’t all that much. His salary is not the reason our tuition is increasing. And it’s counterproductive to see him as a character who is in opposition to BU’s students instead of in line with them.
Although, he could certainly use some more face time with students. He might even want to take a leaf out of Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore’s book. Spotting Brown on campus shouldn’t be a once-a-semester occurrence, it should be an everyday one. He could host office hours or discussions, or any number of other things to be the kind of president that students can really connect with. It might not be in his job description, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
President Brown is a really good president, maybe even a great one. But students know him for one thing, and one thing only. His salary. So although that might not be something we can change, we can change the way we perceive it — and that starts with Brown.