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UA Pres. Robbins gets $75,000 participation trophy

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What the Devil won't tell you

UA Pres. Robbins gets $75,000 participation trophy

University president's raise just a dubious reward for an incomplete grade

  • Robbins in 2017
    University of ArizonaRobbins in 2017

"Any city council dumb enough to pay $80,000 a year for a PR hack, is exactly the kind of council that must spend $80,000 on a PR hack." — Arizona Daily Star legend Joe Burchell,  c. 2003.

Yeah, the point Burchell was making during a Tucson City Council budget meltdown was just that: a good public relations person would tell you not to hire them during a budget meltdown.

Sometimes those in charge need to ask, "Does this agenda item make my ass look stupid?"

So, we give you the Arizona Board of Regents. Here we have a governing body that is so in the grip of the institutions it is is supposed to oversee, if Rachel Maddow covered it for a year she would emerge a free-market anarchist.

The regents decided they absolutely, positively had to give the state's three public university presidents raises — and not incremental raises either. University of Arizona President Robert Robbins just scored himself a 12-percent salary bump. When was the last time you, Dear Reader, got a 12-percent raise without switching jobs or being woefully underpaid in the first place?

Robbins is still in Act One of his tenure at the UA and has not yet earned a 12-percent raise, considering he's already among the 10 highest-paid public university presidents you could find.

The raise might have made sense if the regents brought him in on a one-year, low-dollar "prove it" contract. So long as prove it is defined as "don't fall flat on your face." But ABOR brought him in as the 8th-highest-paid public university president in the country just one year ago.

So rather than muddling through life on a meager $988,000 annual compensation package, he's now a legit million-dollar man. He's a Two-Comma brother, now earning an additional $75,000 in base salary to lift him up to $1,066,000 per year in total compensation. How Norman of him.

But wait! There's more. Robbins wants the university to buy the house he's living in, for $1.3 million. His contract already gave him a $70,000 annual housing allowance and then the University of Arizona Foundation (UA's quasi-private fundraising arm) went and bought him a Sam Hughes home, which he would rent.

That's on top of what's now a $675,000 base salary, a $10,000 per year car allowance, a $200,000 annual endowment and a great-if-you-can-get-it pension worth 18 percent of his salary. I mean how can he find the money to save for his future on $800,000, plus housing allowance. What? Does he work in a call center? If the UA does buy the 3,700-square-foot mission-style home, he'll lose that extra housing money.

The public perception of this raise are terrible. No other state university system got hit harder during the Great Recession by funding cuts than Arizona's. It still hasn't recovered. Student loan debts continue to climb as tuition continues to rise.

The $75,000 raise in base salary is hardly a half a ripple in the campus budget. That's just it, though. Numbers in the millions and billions often go over people's heads because those numbers have no relevance in their lives. People know what $75,000 looks like. They get a 12 percent raise. A year into his term, it's almost like a participation trophy.

Don't get me wrong, Robbins isn't not worth it, which is to say he isn't worth the raise yet. His grade isn't an A or an E. It's an incomplete because he got the raise on May 31, just one day before his first anniversary in the president's chair.

That's no slam on Robbins. A single year is not enough time to judge anything. The University of Arizona sprawls across central Tucson and within itself. It's designed to be a public institution full of academic freedom necessary for quality higher education. That freedom makes the school a snake pit of competing agendas and byzantine corporate structures operating underneath the president's umbrella.

I can't say Robbins is a failure, a mediocre presence or a smashing success. But does he deserve a fat raise, and a free house?

Coping with scandal, hiring lawyers

Robbins took six months to unveil a strategic plan, which is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to put one together. That was just six months ago.

Since then, the big news on the UA campus has been a series of scandals infesting the Athletics Department and a discrimination lawsuit that immediately preceded the provost's resignation. The provost being the No. 2 post in the campus hierarchy.

Robbins big ideas weren't undone by the scandal. They were just swamped by them in public attention like a Trump tweet on a national holiday.

Let's face it. The biggest decision Robbins has made is to stand by UA men's basketball coach Sean Miller. Miller's assistant Book Richardson was indicted on federal bribery charges, leaving questions unanswered about what Miller knew and when he knew it. Maybe the coach is involved. Maybe he's not. NCAA rules say it may not matter because Richardson's actions occurred under Miller's nose.

Robbins has hired the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson to investigate the basketball program. The university did something similar last year to look into allegations that UA football coach Rich Rodriguez sexually harassed an employee and now he's an ex-football coach. The campus community awaits Steptoe and Johnson's findings. Hiring a bunch of lawyers to do anything means the lawyers work for the university and it's an effective way to insulate the university from collateral damage.

Robbins didn't create the steaming mess in the Athletic Department and he's just beginning the process of cleaning it up.

Is he doing well? Is he making the mess messier? Regents president Bill Ridenhour makes the point plain: "I think there needs, probably, to be blunt, in the athletic department there probably needs to be a look at the culture. I think now's a good time to sit down, and with a new athletic director, with a new president, and take a fresh look. At all of this. Now's the time to see if we can have a culture change at the University of Arizona and our athletics."

He said it: "Now's the time to see if we can have a culture change ...." He did not say, "Thank God that's settled."

Snakes and mirrors

Good stuff is happening on campus. No denying that. The school climbed 23 spots in the Center for World University Rankings annual survey. It now ranks 52nd globally and 34th nationally.

The UA Planetary Sciences Department is leading the OSIRIS-REX fly by of a nearby asteroid.

Below Arizona Stadium, the world's largest optical telescope is getting its mirror milled and smoothed.

And a UA medical school researcher may be on the verge of developing a snakebite remedy that stalls the effects of venom long enough to get medical help. As cobras, crates and copperheads don't hang out in hospital parking lots, that's a good thing.

The list goes on, of course, but all of the new developments didn't just happen because Robbins showed up. They are much more likely the result of Ann Weaver Hart's (to the degree a president can claim credit for the work of anyone inside the institution).

Looking the part

If I were in the Valley of the Sun, I would be slow to criticize the raise given Michael Crow. Sure, he's the highest-paid public university president in the country. But U.S. News and World Report's much-followed rankings put ASU a top the list of innovative campuses. Getting campuses to innovate requires Svengali-like leadership mixed in with a bit of a reign of terror.

The UA ranks 56th in the US News and World Report rankings, just behind Michigan Technological University and Colorado State University. The presidents at those schools earn $350,000 and $700,000 respectively.

Ridenhour's justification for the raises described the universities as "economic engines" and the presidents as their "chief executive officers."

"In order to retain the talent that these individuals bring to the state and our universities, salaries of our presidents are based on their exemplary performance."

If keeping Robbins was so important, than why did the regents sign him to a short-term three-year contract? Crow has been at ASU for 16 years.

The truth is that college presidents are getting richer and richer as student loan debt is getting bigger and bigger. One has very little to do with another but when in politics have semi-sensical non-sequiturs failed to catch hold?

So, at best, the Board of Regents gave Robbins a raise in anticipation of outcomes rather than pegged to results. Who wouldn't like that option? "Hey Mr. Boss, give me a 12-percent raise and I'll do my job great. Pay me what I make now and, eh, who can tell?"

It probably wouldn't work for the rank and file.

With workers, the logic gets turned on its head. "Of course they're dispensable. Look at how little we pay them."

At worst, the regents are going full class-war with things and handing Robbins a raise just because he looks the part of a guy who should get a raise. He's a CEO, a surgeon and, most importantly, he doesn't need any more money. So, in what the old-timers knew as "petitio principii," the determination of whether to pay the UA president more certainly does beg the question.

He should be paid more, because he's doing a great job, which is proven by how much we pay him already.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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