The scandal of overpaid administrators does not only affect the University of Alberta. There are university presidents across North America whose salary and benefits come to a million dollars a year and more. How might the University of Alberta show leadership in this sorry situation? Now that “Leadership College” has become Dr Samarasekera’s favourite fantasy rather than “Top Twenty by 2020,” perhaps her colleagues might be allowed to fantasize about what leadership means too. Let’s make this a two-part fantasy.
Part One is obvious: this university is crying out for a rule that no member of university staff be paid more than the premier of the province of Alberta. Nobody believes that running the university is more demanding than running the province. Is the presidency of the university so repulsive a job that it has to be sweetened with yearly millions? If a person has to be paid a million dollars a year to overcome his revulsion at the thought of running a university, then he had better not do it.
Part Two is less obvious, but it starts from an obvious point: that there are two kinds of people in a university. There are people who teach and learn (all learners are also at work teaching their peers, which is why we ask them to meet with each other in classrooms, and all teachers are also at work learning, which is what makes the difference between a teacher and a television set). There are also support staff, who are there to facilitate teaching and learning. Our support staff do a great job, and we need them very much, but teaching and learning are the vital part of the university.
Now, is Dr. Samarasekera a teacher? She has a teaching qualification, which is why she has the title Dr., and she used to teach before she came here. But I don’t see her name on the list of professors in the Faculty of Engineering, and I don’t see her Friday messages beginning with a report of the week’s teaching. Could she combine teaching and the presidency? Yes of course; Shirley Tilghman did at Princeton. She was a university president and also a professor of biology (likewise, her provost, now her successor, was a professor, active in teaching). She didn’t settle for a job on the support staff of her university: and her university didn’t have to put up with a member of the support staff in the top job. So, Part Two of my fantasy: every administrative position which is held by a qualified teacher must be so designed that it permits, and requires, teaching. A president who was an active teacher, and as such a member of a community of teachers, might find it easier to understand that her income should be in line with that of her colleagues in that community; she might find it easier to understand that at a healthy university, the most important leadership happens in the classroom; she might even notice that the leadership happening in her classroom is often coming from her students.
So, will we advertise for our next president with the stipulation that she or he should be paid no more than the premier of the province, and that she or he should be a professor who continues to teach during the presidency? No, probably not, and that’s a pity. Because if we did, we might find ourselves with a president of whom we could be rather proud.