Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 30, 2023

High executive compensation and lack of shared governance raises concerns

By MOLLY GAHAGEN and HELEN LACEY | April 22, 2023


The University enacted austerity measures in April 2020 in light of financial challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures continued until April 2021, despite the fiscal year ending in 2020 having a budget surplus of $75 million. 

In the aftermath of the pandemic and related austerity measures, students and faculty reflected on concerns regarding the University’s finances and decision making processes. 

Executive compensation

Based on data reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, President Ronald J. Daniels’ base pay from the University was over $3.2 million in 2019, placing him as the third-highest-compensated private college president in the United States.

The University’s 990 tax filings reflect that, in the fiscal year ending in June 2020, Daniels earned over $3.1 million in reportable compensation from the University and approximately over $1.2 million in other compensation. 

This is a marked increase from the fiscal year ending in June 2019, where Daniels earned over $1.7 million in reportable compensation and approximately over $1.1 million in other compensation from the University and related organizations. For the fiscal year ending in June 2018, Daniels was reported as earning over $1.6 million in reportable compensation and approximately over $1.1 million in other compensation. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President for Media and Relations and News J.B. Bird explained that the University’s and administration’s performance is reviewed by the Board of Trustees. According to him, compensation levels are evaluated annually according to a market analysis by outside experts.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science, highlighted that Daniels’ compensation is symbolic of a larger, systemic issue in an interview with The News-Letter.

“The real issue is only semi-visible. It's what the President's salary implies about the University administration in general,” he said. “If he gets paid that much, other members of the administration — vice presidents, vice provosts — must be getting paid pretty well as well.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Board of Trustees Chair Louis J. Forster commented on Daniels’ compensation in relation to his achievements.

“We believe Hopkins has the single best university president of this generation,” he wrote. “The scope and scale of the University’s accomplishments during Ron Daniels’ tenure as president — working together with our amazing faculty, students, staff and community — is simply unparalleled, and his compensation appropriately reflects the results of his transformational leadership.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, University employees faced financial hardships. In April 2020, the University announced that austerity measures — such as suspending contributions to employees’ retirement accounts, furloughing employees and making salary cuts to administration members — would be enacted. These measures continued until April 2021, despite the University’s budget surplus of $75 million at the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

PhD student and member of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU-UE), the graduate student union, Michael Wilkinson discussed how graduate students, many of whom are Hopkins employees, advocated for financial assistance.

“They didn't do anything substantially to help the students at that time,“ he said. “They were trying to go for ‘We're suffering a little bit to suffer along with you,’ but there was really no ease to that suffering other than the COVID relief funds that eventually we got to some degree we fought very, very hard for, but it's not like those funds came because of these pay cuts.”

TRU-UE became recognized as an official union in February. Wilkinson described how the union campaign impacted graduate students’ wages.

“When the union campaign was first announced, we saw salaries increase in many departments in [the School of Medicine, School of Arts and Sciences, and School of Engineering],” he wrote. “This is a very common union-busting tactic: increase salaries once so workers feel temporarily appeased and stop fighting, but the fact that this tactic was resorted to meant the University knew how powerful unions are and the real changes we would be fighting for and implementing.”

Wilkinson added that TRU’s goal is to ensure that graduate students‘ wages are higher than the minimum and that wages will increase on a yearly basis to match inflation.

The Board of Trustees and shared governance

Decisions regarding the president’s salary are largely left to the discretion of the Board of Trustees’ Compensation Committee.

In an interview with The News-Letter, François Furstenberg, a professor in the Department of History who has previously written about University governance, raised concerns about the ethics of this system, citing that there is no external oversight in the process.

"If all the information the board learns about the University is channeled through the president's office, and then they understand what kind of job he's doing based on the information he's providing them, and then they compensate him based on that... That's a very funny version of accountability," he said.

According to the group’s by-laws, full-time students, faculty or staff cannot sit on the Board of Trustees.

Furstenberg stressed the distance between the Board of Trustees and the University community, arguing that elected alumni, students and faculty should be allowed to serve on the Board of Trustees.

"[Those on the Board] are people who, basically their point of contact with the University is they got a BA once a long time ago, maybe an MBA,” he said. “What do they know about running a university? Very little. The voices of those who donate large sums to the University should be counterbalanced by people who actually know a little bit about the University.”

Bird stated that the Board of Trustees takes suggestions for board candidates from individuals or groups with interests in the University. According to him, the Board of Trustees regularly meets with the Student Government Association and community members.

Wilkinson reflected on the need for different perspectives on the Board of Trustees.

“The system is very much set up to be a whack-a-mole of addressing one problem at a time once we get enough student complaints — if that problem is addressed,“ he said. “Having more representation on governing executive bodies like the Board of Trustees is another way to help assure accountability.”

He added that TRU’s bargaining committee is in the process of preparing for negotiations to establish more student representation in the University’s governing bodies. 

Faculty have previously objected to the lack of shared governance at the University, citing how decision-making has become more centralized. For example, the tenure process was altered in 2020 with the establishment of the Tenure Advisory Committee, comprised of presidential nominees rather than elected members.

Crenson emphasized that, by expanding the role of the president, other stakeholders lose input in the decision-making process.

“There are other issues that follow from that about the character of the University, about the way we arrived at academic and not just administrative decisions, about the role of faculty,“ he said. “I should make it clear that this is not just a case of the University administration grabbing authority away from the faculty. The faculty is complicit in this. They have been quite happy to step back from what used to be a lot of administrative tasks because it gave them more time to do their research.”

Ishan Kalburge contributed reporting to this article.

Editor’s note: The article was updated to clarify the by-laws of the Board of Trustees. 

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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