There’s an inspiring tale of pluck and determination at the start of “Nature and Revelation,” Jeanne Halgren Kilde’s engaging history of Macalester College (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). It’s all the more noteworthy considering current attitudes about work and pay at my alma mater, but more on that in a minute.
The school is named after an early donor from out east named Charles Macalester II, a 19th-century financier who halfheartedly bequeathed an old hotel near St. Anthony Falls to become a college in his name, then promptly died. They kept his name but put the building on the market.
Macalester should have been called Neill College, however, because it owes its existence to a difficult, persistent and persuasive educator who cajoled that early gift, plus countless others, the Rev. Edward Duffield Neill.
A Philadelphia missionary who arrived in Lowertown when St. Paul was a dirty trading village at the end of the paddleboat line, Neill labored for 35 years to create the frontier college of his imagination. He solicited its first funds, created the college seal, helped find the land, delivered its opening address, designed curriculum and served as its first president.
Yet so tight were funds that Neill needed to beg the trustees for his pay, beginning the year before the school opened and lasting to the end of his life. “As early as December 1884,” writes Kilde, “Neill … reported that he had not been paid and had been forced to borrow to pay his living expenses.” Years down the line Neill’s shabby treatment at the hands of the college he founded persisted. His salary was two months late in 1893, leading him to write “that he had borrowed from the bank for household expenses and the note was coming due,” according to Kilde. “House rent, servants’ wages and grocery bills are behind,’ ” he wrote in an extant dunning letter that probably isn’t being hung for show anywhere in Old Main. “Relief must be had or I must go to the wall.”
He would be dead within the year. Neill was toiling at the school he dedicated his life to creating despite being stiffed an agreed-upon salary of $1,600 annually plus $50 a month for housing. Adjust for inflation and you learn the college’s most important president (by then a professor — it’s complicated) would have been happy to get paid the equivalent of just $55,359 in today’s dollars. Which isn’t bad, as modern salaries go, though it won’t pay for putting your kids through a school like Macalester.
Times have changed, of course. Executives today want nice things and can’t be expected to take meaningful work as its own reward. But it’s striking to consider how much less leaders of the past needed to feel compensated.
As I write this, tomorrow is my last day to give to the Macalester College Annual fund for the tax year 2013. I know this because I just received an e-mail saying so. Perhaps the e-mail team hasn’t spoken with the Annual Fund team, which recently wrote to say they had received my letter revoking my pledge and wanted me to know that I could always direct my gift to a specific use of my choosing, like scholarships.
We give to Macalester every year — not much, but funds I could always put to good use against the Visa bill. (I’m as profligate as the first Mac trustees.) A few months earlier, I had pledged my usual $150. It’s a check I look forward to writing, simply to express my gratitude to the school that helped me pay for a remarkable education. I count my time at Macalester as some of the best years of my life. I gave my only son Macalester for a middle name, in fact. I would have made it his first name, but I thought a boy named Harry would be more likely to help with the shoveling.
And then last month I learned what the Macalester College president was making, and it kind of took the wind out of my sails.
According to a report released by the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2011 Macalester President Brian Rosenberg received $746,090, putting him in the top 100 college presidents in the nation for pay, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States, and pulling away from the pay awarded presidents at higher-ranking comparator schools like Wesleyan, Colgate, Wellesley, Colby and Carleton. (When a school’s tax status is nonprofit, the pay awarded its top executive is public information.)
The Macalester president’s generous 2011 package included $472,092 in base pay and $149,500 in funds paid into a retirement plan. It gives him $67,883 in nontaxable benefits; like most colleges, the school lends him use of an official residence — when I went there it was a lovely colonial on Summit Avenue — and you know what that means: free shoveling. The school also reported $56,615 in “other pay,” for its chief executive in 2011, a sum greater than the entire inflation-adjusted salary its founder was pleading to receive after creating the place with his own bare hands.
But times have changed. For the past three decades, executive pay has risen while wages for everyone else have remained flat or fallen, in corporate boardrooms and for college presidents as well. Macalester falls on the modest end of this trend: the top dog at the University of Chicago made more than $3 million in 2011, and there were 42 presidents earning more than a million during the year surveyed. But it’s telling that a school once known for its idealism has bought into the notion that executives should not feel the pain like the rest of us.
At the end of his service there in 2003, Rosenberg’s predecessor made just $363,000 including retirement benefits, a 50 percent jump from the $240,000 he made in 1999, but hardly the sort of pay that raises eyebrows. Rosenberg started in 2003 with a total package of $280,000, which jumped to $420,000 the next year. His base pay jumped by 30 percent over the three years that followed, and he made more than $700,000 in 2010.
Macalester’s president was on sabbatical when the latest compensation figures came to light. According to an article in the Mac Weekly, the first paper that ever offered me a byline, taking the paid leave was a decision he labored over prior to departure, albeit while contemplating either New York or Italy for his semester of reinvigoration. Compounding ironies only further, Rosenberg is an English instructor by training, an expert in the works of Charles Dickens. So he knows a thing or two about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Though, having recently ordered up Rosenberg’s book on Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” I was disappointed to find that the index contained references for “Women, in Dickens” and “Weinsheimer, Joel,” but nothing for “Wealth.”
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.