Inside the Capitol

Thursday, February 12, 2009

2-16 Making more than the U.S. President

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Executive salaries at the University of New Mexico have become an issue on the UNM campus and are likely to raise some hackles in the New Mexico Legislature.
The issue began with the publication of a big pay increase for Chief Financial Officer David Harris. The generous pay hike came shortly before the university imposed a hiring freeze and other cost-cutting measures.
The result was a 16.2 percent increase for Harris, bumping him up to a whopping $428,000 compensation package. In comparison, UNM faculty received a three percent raise.
Outrage among the faculty quickly focused, not on Harris, but on UNM President David Schmidly for taking the action. Calls for a faculty vote of no confidence in Schmidly gained steam.
UNM Board of Regents Chairman Jamie Koch came to the defense of Schmidly and Harris. He also criticized the faculty and invited students to question the commitment of their teachers.
But instead, students began circulating an online petition asking regents to remove Schmidly as president. The regents countered by commending Schmidly and Harris.
None of this can be good news for colleges and universities as the Legislature debates funding levels for next year. Salary packages of $587,000 for Schmidly and $428,000 for Harris are beyond comprehension for most legislators.
Not so long ago, Harris worked for the Legislature and then for two governors at salaries only a small fraction of what he is making now.
Schmidly says his salary is in line with presidential salaries at similar institutions. But we've seen reports of presidents at the universities of Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, Oregon and Nebraska being a little to a lot smaller.
Executive salaries at universities throughout the nation seem to be more in line with out-of-control compensation of executives in big business. The argument must be that everyone else is doing it so we have to keep up with the competition.
When Schmidly first came to UNM, many of the old-timers compared him to former President Tom Popejoy, a hugely popular UNM president whose 20-years as president spanned from the '40s to the '60s.
Tom was a native New Mexican and a UNM football star who worked his way up through the business office at the university. He enjoyed the respect of students, faculty, governors, legislators and New Mexicans.
During what many called the Golden Years of UNM, Popejoy brought the institution from a small school into university status, tripling its size during his tenure. He was perhaps best known for being a calming influence among faculty, students and state lawmakers during a time of civil unrest.
And his salary never was an issue. I have no idea what it was but I'm sure Tom would have some choice observations about the salary now. UNM has had many presidents since Popejoy left in 1968. There have been six in the last 10 years. And we're still looking for another Popejoy.
UNM regents chairman Jamie Koch may take the brunt of the resentment about high executive salaries at UNM. He has been appointed for a second six-year term by Gov. Bill Richardson and must be confirmed again by the budget-conscious state Senate.
Those hearings aren't going particularly well. The Senate Rules Committee conducts confirmation hearings and has asked for reports from the Department of Public Safety which does background checks for the governor.
Gov. Richardson says that is an intrusion on executive responsibility to nominate qualified candidates. The Rules Committee has responded by not voting on nominations for various boards and commissions, including university board of regents appointees.
A hostile hearing on UNM's budget already was expected in the Senate Finance Committee. Now a unfriendly Senate Rules committee hearing appears to be in the making.
MON, 2-16-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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