Students and faculty at the University of Hawaii have reason to be irked about the Board of Regents’ decision to make permanent a $5,000 monthly housing allowance for the UH president that was intended to be temporary while awaiting renovation of the presidential mansion in Manoa. The allowance, if it stands at the additional contract cost of $300,000-plus, should be recognized in future negotiations as the pay raise that it was.
The regents agreed last month to continue paying President M.R.C. Greenwood the monthly housing allowance on top of her $475,000 annual salary through July 2015; Greenwood had taken a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, along with other UH higher-ups, because of the university’s financial problems. Despite such fiscal woes that have raised tuition and student fees — and Greenwood’s package that already included housing at the official presidential mansion — UH regents nonetheless voted unanimously to pay the monthly rental subsidy through the entire contract extension. That allowance is now "subject to periodic evaluation of the current use" of the official residence, known as College Hill.
Compare that with the State University of New York, where the chancellor and three vice chancellors agreed last September to forfeit their housing allowances, ranging from $39,000 to $90,000 a year, while retaining their base salaries or getting slight pay raises. Call it a distinction without a difference.
In itself, Greenwood’s salary is not excessive. A survey of the nation’s 184 public universities in the 2007-08 school year found that more than 100 of the presidents or chancellors received annual compensation exceeding $400,000, and the median compensation was $427,400. Another study about the same time determined that 27.9 percent of them resided free in presidential houses. Some former proxy homes have been converted to be used mainly for public functions. Others have been put on the market, as college presidents increasingly prefer the privacy of living in their own homes.
Greenwood has opted for the Waikiki-area condominium she has been renting since being named president in summer 2009. The century-old, two-story College Hill does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Greenwood’s partner is "a senior disabled person with attendant special needs," a UH spokesman explained to the Star-Advertiser’s Rob Perez.
All of that was known when Greenwood agreed, in competition with other presidential candidates, that her residing away from College Hill would continue only until renovations were completed. The renovation ended in October — and if Greenwood then found it unsuitable for her needs, continuing to live off-campus should be paid for out of her own pocket, not on the taxpayers’ dime.
The regents may regard $5,000 a month as a pittance of Greenwood’s entire compensation, but Susan Hippensteele, chairwoman of the Manoa Faculty Senate, points out that it is likely more than what most professors earn in take-home pay. UH-Manoa undergraduate Geoffrey Torres calls it "a slap in the face" of students.
The regents handled the issue clumsily in setting what could become a costly precedent of offering the president the option of living at College Hill or receiving a generous allowance to purchase a home or pay rent elsewhere. Simply, it is a bad decision highlighted by bad economic times.