U regents tighten pay rules, end special leaves

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2012 - 11:39 PM

Responding to a severance uproar under former President Bruininks, the board will oversee "any significant change" in payments to top administrators.

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Robert Bruininks

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It's now tougher for a University of Minnesota administrator to nab a big pay package on the way out.

The Board of Regents on Wednesday tightened its oversight of executive compensation and ended special leaves for outgoing administrators, responding to an uproar over a series of severance packages.

The president must now have the board chair and vice chair sign off on "any significant change from the terms of the initial employment or any waiver of a university policy requirement," such as a severance agreement worth more than six months' salary.

The changes follow a Star Tribune report that showed past U President Robert Bruininks granted his departing executives $2.8 million in leaves and severance. He regularly approved lengthy paid leaves at their administrative salaries, that report showed, and repeatedly waived a university policy that executives repay their stipends if they left the U.

The rules strengthen the board's hand in compensation for the university's 43 top executives but also aim to give President Eric Kaler enough flexibility to keep the university competitive.

"Moving forward, these changes will create greater transparency and accountability," said Linda Cohen, chair of the board. "The new language will make our policies clear and require that exceptions can only be granted with the consent of board leadership."

In an e-mail, Bruininks again defended his actions as president, saying that he is "confident that I managed executive compensation and deployed the administrative leave policy in the long-term interest of the university, consistent with both precedent and existing policies."

Regents, many of whom said they were surprised by the paid leaves and severance packages, got two examples on Wednesday of the beefed-up information they will receive on each new hire.

Before, the board might have gotten little more than a salary and a start date. On Wednesday, they considered the appointment of Brian Steeves as executive director of the Board of Regents. They got his background (including his job as an executive budget officer at Minnesota Management and Budget), recommended salary ($175,000), market data supporting that salary (median salary for that position at doctoral institutions of $168,830) and employment agreement (which included no individually negotiated terms of employment or separation).

Kathy Brown, the U's vice president of human resources, called that "a good example of what you might expect going forward."

Brown and other members of Kaler's administration helped draft the new rules requested by a special regents committee. At a legislative hearing in March, Kaler had promised to propose changes that would require the president to get the regents' OK before deviating from policy.

The board plans to revisit the changes in a year, to see how they've worked.

Policies approved on Wednesday include the deletion of so-called "administrative transitional leaves," intended to give longtime administrators time to retool before returning to the faculty. Now, eligible administrators can take standard faculty sabbaticals, which are shorter.

Corresponding rules, not yet in place, say that those sabbaticals of up to six months will be paid at a faculty salary, rather than the administrative rate. Also, "if an individual is granted a sabbatical, he or she will not receive severance."

Those specifics will be outlined in administrative policies that don't need the regents' approval. They're moving through an internal process.

Bruininks said he supports the regents' efforts to clarify the policies for executives. "When you transition out of a leadership position," he wrote, "you expect the organization to continue to evolve."

During her report to the board on Wednesday, Cohen praised Kaler's "extraordinary first year" as president. She said that the board wanted to give Kaler a raise to reward his "superior performance" and illustrate the board's support for his work. Then she gave Kaler the floor.

Kaler said that while he, like anyone, would appreciate a raise, his first goal is access to the university: "Thus, I request that you hold my annual salary at its current level."

The board approved a motion to put $18,300, or about 3 percent of Kaler's $610,000 salary, into an undergraduate scholarship fund.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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