Executive Pay at Middlebury Is Out of Control

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Executive Pay at Middlebury Is Out of Control

Millie von Platen

Millie von Platen

Millie von Platen


Editor’s note: The author is an at-will employee of Middlebury College who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. The request was granted because of the essay’s pertinence to the campus debate, and because it otherwise met our editorial standards.

I would first like to address why I asked to keep this opinion anonymous. Executive pay is a sensitive topic where staff and other at-will employees of the college do not have much latitude with which to express their frustration with leadership decisions. We exist in a small enough community where criticism of this nature might come at a cost that many of us are not willing to expend. I wish to express these frustrations because I care about the financial health of the college and want to encourage us toward prudent stewardship.

At three meetings last week, staff and faculty were invited by interim provost Jeff Cason and treasurer David Provost to participate in a conversation about executive pay. Limited information about executive pay is made public every year in the filing of a Form 990. While professor Graham’s op-ed highlighted some of these issues and sparked this important conversation, I am writing in order to further elucidate some fiscal practices and pose some yet unanswered questions.

The idea of stay bonuses represent a part of the frustration from faculty, staff and students. While the college does not hand out “bonuses” per se, these payments work fundamentally just like a bonus. They accrue over several years and are paid out to high-level employees who are deemed to be so indispensable, they receive several hundreds of thousand dollars in addition to their base and other pay for simply staying in their jobs. If they were to leave Middlebury before the end of the stay bonus agreement (typically a three or four years period), they would not be paid that amount.

We know the details in only a couple of the cases in which stay bonuses have been utilized, such as one stay bonus put in place when a high-level employee was interviewing for a presidency at another institution. For the majority of these stay bonuses, though, the 2015 Middlebury College presidential transition was used as the justification. These stay bonuses have totalled several million dollars paid to 14 people in the last few years.

I understand the value in retaining high-level employees. Unfortunately, the manner in which stay bonuses have been used has been too many, too excessive, and in the context of the college’s other employees, unequitable. Philosophically, one might even question an employee’s dedication to the institution and its mission if they have to be enticed to stay here to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In contrast, faculty and staff are often told, even if they have another job offer in hand, that salaries are not negotiable and that they are welcome to leave and take the better offer elsewhere. The merit pay increase structure for staff consists of modest pay increases distributed from a singular pool for all the college staff. The size of the pool and the manner in which it is allocated mean that pay increases between staff who have far exceeded expectations and those who meet expectations can often differ by just a few hundred dollars.

Senior leadership at the college do not seem to fall under the same restraints. Even putting aside the stay bonuses, the base pay for senior leadership seems to have grown each year at a rate outstripping that received by staff or faculty. For example, while already being one of the college’s most highly paid employees, in the span of just 2 years, our previous treasurer went from making a base salary of $252,489 to $270,857 (an increase of 7.3 percent). While a staff member has a top end of the pay range for their specific role, senior leadership do not seem to have any such pay ranges, let only top ends.

Additionally, we have by far the largest senior leadership team of our NESCAC peers — 17 people, followed by Amherst and Tufts at 12. While Middlebury has seven members our senior leadership team in academic roles, our NESCAC peers have one or two cabinet-level staff fulfilling these functions. Granted, three of these individuals run Monterey, our Language Schools, and the international programs respectively — facets to the college which are fairly distinctive to Middlebury. But, it does seems excessive that we have a dean of faculty, interim provost, a provost on leave and a vice president for academic development all currently drawing sizable salaries. Further, we seem to be the only school in the group that has two advancement officers serving in the senior leadership team — a vice president for advancement as well as a chief philanthropic advisor.

David Provost highlighted at the meeting last week that the average pay for our top ten highest paid employees was about 14 percentage points above the mean of a select group of our peer colleges. I am curious about how our total executive pay compares to our peers considering our bench is far deeper.

One might even question an employee’s dedication to Middlebury if they have to be enticed to stay here to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

In terms of other excesses, why is the enrollment dean at Monterey one of our highest paid employees if we haven’t met enrollment goals at Monterey? Why was the head of the Hebrew Language School one of top paid employees in 2015? There might be excellent reasons for these decisions, but the lack of transparency around these high costly salaries is alarming.

Further, while the numbers around his departure are still murky, former President Liebowitz seems to have received very sizable additional and deferred pay at the time of his departure. While President Liebowitz was ranked lower in college president pay compared to our peers, I imagine we will be learning within the next 990 that he left Middlebury with an heartily exorbitant goodbye.

I bring all this up with the backdrop of the college facing a painful $20+ million operating deficit. Faculty and staff have been asked to take on the heavy burden of bringing the college’s finances back on track. While we have an interim provost and a provost on leave both drawing salaries, we have a 90-day hiring freeze for all other new staff. This is one of my examples where policies and approaches for staff and faculty misalign with those for senior leadership.

It is possible that a certain evaluation of mine is off or a critique is unfounded. I have done my best to study and verify the information here. All this information has been pieced together from the very limited sources that we can access. We need more transparency.

We need to have the same streamlined approach in leadership as has been requested of the rest of the organization. The executive salary structure is set by the board and its compensation committee upon the recommendation of the president. Protecting these pay practices has unfortunately become a coordinated effort. Talking points were distributed to senior leadership in order to talk about the executive pay strategy with one voice. The defensive “us versus them” posture is not going to move us forward.

Commendably, I believe that President Patton has placed a temporary freeze in base pay to staff who make above $200,000 a year. But the stay bonus practices still continue, and we need to go further.

I wish that President Patton would convene a group of staff, faculty, and students to discuss and make recommendations to the compensation committee of the board as well as senior leadership concerning (a) equity in pay and pay practices across the college, (b) transparency around pay practices, (c) policies around salary negotiation, (d) the attitude of indispensability of a select few, (e) budget oversight and sustainability, (f) the alignment in how we treat our staff, faculty and senior staff, and (g) our labor ethics as an institution.

I hope that we learn from the mistakes of the past and pick a direction that places the college on a financially sustainable path. We also have heard a fair amount of deflecting responsibility to the previous treasurer and the previous president (now the chief operating officer at Tulane and the president of Brandeis University, respectively) for our current predicament. But there is much that we can and must do to address our current and inherited practices. At the end of the day, this is not about the individual people. It does not matter who was at fault because now, we all must be accountable.

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