September 22, 2010

Full Disclosure

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Even if the Student Assembly passes Resolution 12 — which calls for public disclosure of the compensation packages received by every administrator listed on the Cornell Annual and Financial Report — it is no sure thing that President David Skorton will approve the resolution. Concerns about privacy and recruitment of top administrators may prevent Cornell from taking a large step toward improving transparency and allowing students and the general public a closer look into how this university is run. These concerns are valid and should be considered as such, but the storyline that prompted Resolution 12 — the increasing cost of college education, largely due to administrative (as opposed to faculty or staff) compensation — does deserve a thorough discussion.Beyond the troubling increases in the cost of education, this resolution gets at Cornell’s dual responsibilities to both protect the privacy of its employees, and achieve transparency as a partially taxpayer-funded university. Despite operating several statutory colleges, Cornell is legally recognized by New York State as a private institution. This legal status protects the University from having to make executive compensation figures public. However, the reality is that Cornell toes a fine line between being a public or private university. While the University is legally defined as “private,” it should still be accountable to the taxpayers who fund a significant percentage of its operations, just like any taxpayer-funded institution. Releasing this S.A.-proposed report would not only show that Cornell is dedicated to transparency at all levels, but would give the people of New York a rightful look into an institution that receives a piece of their tax money year-in and year-out.If the S.A. wants to disclose the salaries of administrators working for Cornell, a (legally) private institution, they could implement some barriers that would still maintain personal privacy. One example of such a barrier would be to attach the salaries only to positions held, and not to the specific individuals who hold those positions. Of course, it would take only a small amount of additional effort to uncover who holds those positions. But it would shift the focus away from individuals and onto the positions they hold. It makes an identifiable connection between the work being done and the amount being paid. This is especially important in terms of disclosing responsibility and a position’s value. Additionally, it adds an extra layer of transparency without unnecessarily revealing individuals’ salaries.Even if the University ultimately decides not to release an Annual Report on Executive Compensation, this should not be the end of the discussion on pulling back the curtain to reveal the ultimate destination of students’ tuition and New York taxpayers’ money. Skorton has stated on multiple occasions that he is concerned about the rising cost of higher education, and the University has adopted generous financial aid policies to help combat that trend. But the financial aid pool is not limitless. Eventually university presidents around the world will have to take a long hard look at the cost structures of their institutions. Resolution 12, or some increased transparency that results from its passage, is an opportunity for Cornell to prove its leadership and dedication to keeping college affordable.