Fans of Crimson Tide football are used to seeing their team ranked at or near the top of every national poll. Now the same can be said of the University of Alabama System’s administrative costs, as a new list of rankings by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows UA leaders are among the highest paid in the U.S.
The Chronicle’s “2021-2022 Almanac” issue was published Aug. 20 and revealed that even in one of the poorest states in the country, the flagship university system has managed to climb to the top when it comes to rewarding its leaders. UA System Office Chancellor Finis St. John IV was the 14th-highest-paid chief executive at a public college in 2020, according to the Chronicle’s data, with a salary of $1,033,069. Just behind him was UAB President Ray Watts, who brought home $1,023,894.
That means two of the top 15 highest-paid public college executives in the nation are working in the University of Alabama System. No other Alabama college or university had anyone ranked in the top 50 by the Chronicle, although University of Alabama President Stuart Bell’s salary in 2020 was $815,185, which is high enough to have ranked 38th on the list. University of Alabama Huntsville President Darren Dawson would not have made the top 50 list with his reported salary of $511,140 in 2020.
The UA System also placed highly in what it pays for legal help, according to the Chronicle. Sid Trant, general counsel and senior vice chancellor, ranked second in pay nationwide for legal administrators. The Chronicle listed him as having a salary of $507,672, but online UA payroll records show Trant was paid $514,569 last year, which would actually make him the nation’s highest-paid legal administrator at a public facility.
The System Office, which oversees universities in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham, as well as the UAB Hospital System, also topped the charts for institutions with the highest pay for non-instructional employees. Under the category “Community, social service, legal, arts, design, entertainment, sports and media,” the University of Alabama System was rated as having the highest pay in the nation. The Chronicle listed the average salary for the 22 employees it examined in that category as taking home an average of $184,307.
System Office officials were also the highest paid in the nation in the “Management” category. There, the Chronicle said the UA System Office paid an average of $291,504 to 16 employees it identified as being involved in management.
System Office officials did not respond to questions for this story.
A Chronicle finding that might be of particular interest to parents is that the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa was determined to be the public institution with the fifth-greatest gap between instruction spending and tuition revenue for the years 2018 and 2019. It listed the university as bringing in $532.5 million in revenue from tuition and fees and spending just $361.8 million of that teaching students. That left a gap of $170.7 million — roughly one-third — collected in tuition and fees not being spent on the instruction of UA’s 38,000 students, according to the Chronicle.
By comparison, the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Chicago, two large schools that landed at the other end of the list, actually spend more on instruction than they take in through tuition and fees.
As a state, Alabama ranked fifth worst in the nation in percentage of the population obtaining a bachelor’s degree, at just 15.9 percent. Only Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico had lower percentages.
None of the three University of Alabama schools ranked among the top 50 in terms of highest six-year graduation rates. Auburn University, however, ranked number 42 with a 79.1 percent graduation rate.
No Alabama-based public college or university was ranked among the 50 most expensive in the nation.
When St. John was appointed full-time chancellor in April 2019, removing the “interim” tag he’d held for roughly nine months after a 17-year stint on the Board of Trustees, his former board colleagues praised him not only as a leader, but as a fiscal manager. But even as he took the position, St. John also took an already highly paid position into a different stratosphere.
In 2017, his last full year as chancellor, Ray Hayes was paid $578,437, according to UA’s online payroll records. In St. John’s first full year, 2020, payroll records show he made $854,247. He also received a $75,000 housing stipend and another $12,000 for his car, which would bring his total to $942,247. The Chronicle pegs his pay for 2020 at $1,033,069. Even the lowest of those totals, not counting housing and car allowances, represents a $276,000 increase for the same position, or 48 percent more.
As Lagniappe has reported previously, such massive salary increases have not been uncommon at UA in recent years.
For example, former Congressman Jo Bonner was hired in 2013 to serve as vice chancellor over government relations and economic development and was paid $359,000 a year. In 2015, current Senior Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Clay Ryan was hired to take over the governmental affairs half of Bonner’s job. Ryan’s first year there, he was paid $661,000 — nearly twice as much as Bonner had been to handle both areas. Ryan was paid more than $775,000 in 2019 according to UAB Hospital System 990 records.
Former Athletic Director Bill Battle was making nearly $721,000 a year when he retired in 2017 to become “special assistant to the president” and was replaced by Greg Byrne. Payroll records show Byrne was paid $1,117,590 his first year at Alabama, bumped to $1,493,340 in year two, $1,711,523 a year later and $1,849,506 this last year. In four years, the AD’s salary has skyrocketed 157 percent, according to online payroll records.
The System Office obtained its ranking as the highest-paid management division in the country over the past decade, with payroll rising from $7.7 million for 85 employees, according to UA records, to $12.9 million last year paid to 121 employees. Through June of this year, the System Office paid out $6.5 million to 106 employees, which would put it on pace to break $13 million, but with a much smaller staff.
Currently, the System Office is advertising for three new administrative staff members: a communications specialist, an investments and treasury manager, and an operations coordinator. No salary information was available for those positions.
Salary growth in the System Office has outstripped such growth at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa as well. During that same time frame, salaries at the main university rose 54 percent, but enrollment has increased during that time as well.
This past Friday, the University of Alabama “launched” a splashy new fundraising campaign known as “Rising Tide” that aims to raise $1.5 billion over 10 years. The campaign actually began raising money five years ago, and as UA President Stuart Bell informed a crowd gathered for a lavish launch party, it has already raised $940 million.
Money pouring in from “Rising Tide,” the success of university athletics and the high salaries of its administrators may fuel a notion that the UA System is flush with cash, but it still leans heavily on taxpayer money, raising the question of whether St. John and the Board of Trustees are displaying good stewardship of public dollars.
As Lagniappe has documented over the past few months, the System has also unnecessarily paid hundreds of thousands or millions in salary to employees who have either retired or stepped down from high-paid positions. The largest of those unnecessary payments was a $2.3 million bonus to former Chancellor Bob Witt when he retired in 2016. St. John was serving as pro tempore of the Board of Trustees at the time.
But even as spending rises, so too has the amount of tax money coming from the state annually. UA is hardly unique in this regard, as most public colleges and universities request and receive more money each year from the Education Trust Fund (ETF), but the UA System gets by far the biggest slice of that pie.
State budget reports show that in 2017, the UA System — all three campuses and the hospital — received nearly $475 million from the ETF. This year, that number was $534 million, and in 2022, $587 million was approved. So even as the System has brought in more than $940 million over the past five years of “Rising Tide,” its annual share of taxpayer dollars is now $112 million higher than it was five years ago.
The System Office has refused to respond to questions over the past several months regarding spending decisions made by St. John and the Board of Trustees. Trustees have also refused to answer questions about expenditures and special payment arrangements that fall wildly outside the board guidelines for exiting presidents and chancellors. Such arrangements have cost the System millions and often appear designed primarily to elicit nondisclosure agreements from exiting employees.
Even as he has become one of the nation’s highest-paid public university leaders, St. John’s office has come under fire from current and former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for instilling a culture that has lowered morale and created fear. Sources have told Lagniappe St. John has even barred certain employees from entering Sidney McDonald Hall in an effort to stop perceived information leaks to news reporters.
Efforts to maintain secrecy have even extended to a refusal to simply answer questions surrounding the search that eventually ended with St. John being selected as chancellor. The System Office has refused for months to say whether anyone other than St. John was ever considered or interviewed for the position.
St. John stepped in to replace Hayes, who retired suddenly after just about two years running the UA System. Ostensibly, St. John did this to provide time for a “national and international” search to be conducted to find a full-time replacement. Those familiar with the process have pointed out, though, that after 17 years on the Board of Trustees, St. John was faced with being term-limited out.
Whether Hayes was urged to make way for St. John isn’t known for certain, but the exiting chancellor was paid another $1.3 million in the two years following his departure — a move that was not in concert with Board of Trustees’ guidelines for “retreating” chancellors and presidents.
There’s no evidence a search actually took place. Multiple people with knowledge of the process have told Lagniappe on condition of anonymity, the most that ever happened relating to a search was an online search was conducted to make a list of potential candidates, but those people were never contacted or interviewed.
Oddly, the UA System Office received an opinion from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office in March 2019 to a question from Trant asking whether the Board of Trustees has “exclusive and discretionary” authority to hire and fire chancellors and school presidents. The AG responded that the board alone has that power, and “no legislative act may modify or diminish that authority.”
Whether the opinion request was made in anticipation of possible legislative involvement in the selection process is unclear from the letter, but a month later the Board of Trustees removed the interim tag, appointed St. John full-time chancellor and made him one of the highest-paid university CEOs in America.
The entire “Soft Landings” series can be read here.
Updated 9.15.21 at 1 p.m. to include salaries of University of Alabama President Stuart Bell and University of Alabama Huntsville Darren Dawson.
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