Alma Hater -or- Why My College Irks Me So Bad

If you know me personally, you probably already know that I don’t have a lot of good things to say about my alma mater, its former president or its policies. Even calling it ‘not a lot’ is probably charitable. My time there in the mid-90s left me a large distaste for much of what happens there. From the cover-ups of alleged rapes (done so well I can’t even find reference to them on the web any more) to the expulsion of a homosexual student, there isn’t much that would surprise me coming out of my college.

The school itself isn’t really what I have a problem with; its more the administration and its policies that have infuriated me over the decades. Given we’re 22 years away from when I decided to enroll (and around 19 years since the disillusion really started to set in), you are probably wondering why I haven’t just gotten over it. Sorry, hiding sexual assaults and kicking out gay students, all in the name of promoting yourself as a wholesome, family sanctioned place is the worst of hypocrisy and an unconscionable way to maintain your endowment, no matter what your mission.

But what about the education I received, you ask? Frankly, it was top notch, far better than my graduate degree, so shouldn’t that count for something? Yes and no. I would argue, given the discussion with numerous members of the faculty I had during my time there and since, that they were there in spite of what the administration itself was doing and promoting. They really felt called to a mission to provide a first-rate job of educating young adults and they, for the most part, did an admirable job. Yes, the administration had hired them, so kudos to that administration for being pragmatic enough to hire people who don’t agree with you. Oh, wait, that’s assuming I believe the administration intelligent enough to catch that subtlety, and I don’t credit them for that, so good job on being oblivious to many of the faculty and staff they actually hired. You got a lot of great people to work for you whose first rule was to be more pragmatic than dogmatic.

We’re not here to talk about any of that though; we’re here to discuss a news article that caused me to laugh rather thoroughly when my sister passed it my way last evening. See, we’re sitting out here on the beach, enjoying a nice family vacation together and this article was more entertaining that just about anything that had happened in the past week. That’s one of the luxuries of picking a very remote location for a beach vacation. I just couldn’t pass up the chance to drop in a few comments on the situation.

A caveat, I know nothing about the situation beyond what is written in the article. I really don’t want to know, either. I love my friends and professors from that time and wish them all the best, but man, if there were ever two groups of people, the former president and the current administration, that I’m more happy to see go at it over money, showing their true selves, I don’t know who it would be. So, if you’re looking for anything beyond a gleeful analysis in this article, you should probably have stopped reading about 5 paragraphs ago.

Lets get down to it. My intent isn’t to try and sway you, the reader, to any particular point of view; only to lay out some logical conclusions from the information as presented and then do a little more wild speculation on what we don’t know. Lets start with the logical reviews.

So what exactly is the situation? The former president is suing the university over what he claims is a $395,000 yearly salary in retirement; a sum he says the university agreed to while he was president. The university now says that the approval of the retirement package was not done correctly and they shouldn’t be required to pay the sum.

The former president says he was paid, over his 35 years as head of the school, significantly less than the going rate, under the assumption that the school would pay for he and his wife in their retirement years. The school says the sum is absurd and wants to negotiate a more reasonable rate, something it has been attempting to do for some time now.

Starting out, we want to assume everyone is being above board on their allegations (we’ll get to the less savory options in a minute; hold your horses!) First, the Taylors. No one disputes that giving and enrollment were up seriously during his tenure. This is what presidents are hired to do in today’s collegiate environment. If we assume that this study is correct and the average salary for college presidents was around $250,000 at the time of his retirement and if we make an assumption that 'significant’ is maybe 1/3 lower, lets say he was receiving $166,000 in yearly compensation (not including expense, retirement, yada yada yada). Remember, he lived in university housing as well, so that wasn’t an expense of his, either. Last, this is eastern Kentucky, where the cost of living is one of the lowest in the country, so its not likely that he was spending like he was in Silicon Valley just to get by.

It seems to me that, given the disparity between the $166k active salary and the $400k retirement benefits, either we’re not getting the whole story about Taylor’s actual salary while he held the office or something with those retirement benefits smells really fishy.

Lets move on now to the school. I don’t think anyone is arguing that $400,000/year is a substantial salary, especially to what a school in southeastern Kentucky could do with that that back in their pocket. I’m going to do a little rough extrapolation and say that in the last 18 years since I graduated, tuition and board at the school have roughly gone up 2.5x what they were when I departed. This would mean that for the price of one former president’s salary, you could afford to send 16 more students to school for nothing every single year. Not bad.

(And this is where, if you were a student at the school during Taylor’s tenure, you’ll already have in your mind the joke that for that kind of cash, you could alternatively add another dozen penises to the top of buildings.)

Now that we’ve covered the honest reasons, lets throw some shade on everyone’s intentions and talk about the darker side of humanity. Again, we’ll start with Taylor.

The article mentions the passing of his son in 1991. I didn’t even know the guy and when I first heard the story as an ignorant 18 year old, damn, that sounds like a tough road to go down for any parent. In this one area, Taylor has my sympathies and I’ll not say a thing about him other than I can’t imagine being in the same situation. To keep up with such a difficult job while dealing with that kind of loss, you have to be one perseverant individual. He was their only child and they never had another.

So, what does a couple of retirees in their 70s (or near enough in Dinah’s case) with no children or grandchildren, do with that much cash? I’m going to assume that they didn’t put all their eggs in the basket of the university’s largess for the future and have some retirement savings put aside, plus their government retirement through social security. No, that probably isn’t as nice as a $400k/year stipend, but I bet its a far cry better than what 80% of the population retires on. Sure, they could have other relatives or other charities to leave the cash to, but if they loved the university so much that they dedicated their lives to it, why would they now be rushing to take so much money out of it?

But what about the school? What could their motivations be? Well, there is a new sheriff (president) in town, but he was someone brought into the university by Taylor, so would he be looking to stiff his old boss? Is it possible he finally got a good look at the books, saw how that agreement looked really shady and decided to try and put it right? What if the new president didn’t even know the agreement existed until after Taylor showed up asking, “Where’s my check?”

What about that agreement from 2005, anyway? What gives with that? Why would you in 2005 vote, in a closed door session, to provide such outsized benefits (again, if the salary assumptions are correct), then only put it into a formal agreement 7 years later? Isn’t that something you’d do on the day you voted to agree to it? And, if everyone has agreed to it twice already, why reaffirm it again right before Taylor stepped down? And why isn’t Taylor demanding to be named chancellor like the agreement stipulated, but is focusing on just the money (this may have just been an omission of the reporting, but I can only go on what I know)?

One thing I’ve seen on the Facebook walls of my former college students is that, if the school agreed to it, then there’s no discussion; they have to pay. Oh, my sweet summer children. You have no idea how the legal system works or what agreements really mean.

Lets start with contracts. Essentially, they are frameworks for how two (or potentially more) parties agree to work together for a (usually) set time in the future. After terms are worked out, both parties sign and date (important part right there) to show their agreement with the document. The lawyers on both sides will, if they are worth the money you’re paying them, provide a method for each party to terminate the agreement, usually with some cash changing hands. Sure, there are situations where the termination will cost more or less, but the termination is a key point of the agreement.

The university has a couple of obvious (and probably more not-so-obvious as I’m not a lawyer, I just read and sign a few contracts every month as part of my job) ways to get out of this. First, they could just pay the termination fee, assuming there is one. If no penalty is specified for breaking the agreement, then it gets a little more chancy. Its really difficult for the Taylors to argue that the lack of termination language means there is no way to break the contract, so they’re going to have to argue that the university can get out of it, but they will have to pay in full now, not during the duration.

But the better way for the university to go about this, and it seems to me from the article that’s what they’re doing, is to claim the agreement wasn’t valid in the first place. If this happened in a close door session and was ratified by a group of hand-picked trustees who are in Taylor’s pocket, then the agreement should be null and void as its a violation of Taylor’s duties as the sitting president when the agreement was signed. If the school is successful in this line of reasoning, they could get out of this without paying a dime to the Taylors (minus legal fees, of course.) They may not even need to argue that the trustees were in Taylors pocket; they could just claim the meeting was faked or that the trustees were mislead as to the actual terms of the agreement.

I don’t think any of that’s where this is going and the article backs up with this is all about… renegotiation. The university is probably good with paying the Taylors, assuming that it is true and they worked for below market value for all those years. You tend to take care of your own, after all. Its just the size of the payments that are the issue. The school, and likely more specifically the current administration, sees them as a former president abusing his power to set himself up after retirement. If the amounts are even remotely what I put in earlier, I can’t say I blame them.

This who situation reminds me of a story though. For those of us who went to the school in the mid-90s, we remember a beloved, if sometimes annoying, figure on the campus: Mrs. Hall (maybe it is Ms.; I don’t remember if she ever married or not.) This lady was living on campus as she had, so the legend goes, given back all her professorial paychecks over the years, with the understanding that the university would continue to take care of her until she passed away. Supposedly, she had some extended family, but they were not people she had much of a relationship with, so the school was her family.

Mrs. Hall ate her meals in the cafeteria with the students, attended our student functions and lived in a small apartment that overlooked the viaduct. Passing away over a decade ago, she really seemed to live the life of service that she felt she was called to. No lawsuits, no expansive contracts; just someone who cared about the best for the school’s students. Its too bad that the school doesn’t have at least a couple more like her. Yeah, she tried to get we rascally students fined for walking on the grass occasionally, but I’d be happy to go back and pay $15 for those times she didn’t catch me, so long as I can be assured that no one else I’ve spoken of in this post ever sees a penny of that cash.