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Continued: What would you pay a person to run a college?

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  • Last update: January 18, 2014 - 6:00 PM

We aren’t supposed to be bothered by executive pay. That’s class war. Socialism. Envy. Moreover, “criticizing college presidents these days is easy,” as Rosenberg wrote in the Chronicle, “like poking fun at a Kardashian.” He wrote that while defending his profession against the charge that his peers no longer take hard positions on social issues, a charge levied on his own office after the executive gave students demanding divestment from Wells Fargo a stiff-arming worthy of the statue known as the Heisman.

Private-sector pay packages like the $14 million showered in 2012 on UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley are supposed to get all the attention. And really, you try living on $450,000 in this town. OK, that was an easy one. But my beloved Macalester journalism professor Ron Ross trained us to afflict the comfortable, so we might as well put it out there: Does anyone really need $700,000 a year to be happy?

Because that’s the official explanation — that Rosenberg’s salary reflects deferred compensation awarded “as part of the board’s desire to retain President Rosenberg’s services,” according to the college press office. The package came “with the stipulation that he remain at the college and meet certain performance requirements,” and it seems he did just that. In a prepared statement the college listed a notable punch-list of his accomplishments during the past 11 years, including millions in successful fundraising, the construction of landmark buildings on campus, his growing status as a “thought leader” for the profession, and serving on the Itasca Project, a group “whose participants are primarily private sector CEOs.” As the Macalester trustee and former Cargill corporate counsel Steven Euller wrote, “Macalester has been able to retain one of the top presidents in the country with a package that’s very competitive.”

This reflects common but erroneous notions about the primacy of talent in corporate success, where, if you haven’t noticed, executives are treated like quarterbacks in the NFL — pay ’em or they’ll leave you, because it’s all about the Benjamins. Little has changed since the time of Dickens, who wrote in “Martin Chuzzlewit” of a time when “men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.”

None of this is to pick on Rosenberg, though I’m sure it will seem somehow that way in our self-censoring corner of the map. He seems to have invigorated the college and served it well, and there is a part of me that is tickled to hear of a humanities scholar making such a nice living. But it’s hard to keep giving my little $150.

Rather, this is about the little ways we all agree to take part in the concentration of wealth in our time, a remarkable spike in the earnings of those at the top that has been accompanied by a precipitous drop since 2000 in the earning power of the Macalester product (a bachelor’s degree). According to recent work by economist Paul Beaudry, after a 25 percent jump in our earning power during the 1990s, those of us with a B.A. have seen our market value dive like Grand Avenue as it descends into downtown St. Paul.

I have no doubt that Rosenberg is a great president, but I don’t see many people in my community whose salary has doubled during the past 10 years, never mind nearly tripling. So it’s awkward. If our small liberal arts colleges decline to set an example on executive pay, how can we expect anything better from those on the corporate side whose favor they seem so intent on courting?

Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.

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