August
13th 2009
Pointless “gotcha” article, or “gotcha?”

Posted under: jobs

Yesterday, the Boston Globe published an article announcing that “Strapped Colleges Keep Leaders in Luxury” (h/t Inside Higher Ed yesterday.)  Daring investigative journalism has revealed that:

From the many windows of her stone mansion, MIT president Susan Hockfield enjoys a commanding view of sailboats gliding along the Charles River. When Northeastern president Joseph Aoun steps outside his five-story brick town house, he finds himself just across the street from Boston Common.

Their counterparts at other private colleges reside in luxury as well, many on centuries-old estates surrounded by well-tended gardens and lawns cared for by loyal staffs. The homes, many provided by universities as part of their presidents’ compensation, are the ultimate perk in this college-rich region, but one that increasingly appears to represent a bygone era.

Now the opulence risks standing out amid frozen faculty salaries, widespread layoffs, and slashed programs. While the houses often serve an important ceremonial role and it is questionable how much money could be saved by their elimination, the very mention of them has elicited low-level grumbling on campuses and anxiety among university officials over the Globe’s request to tour them.

Scandalous!  Shocking!  I suppose the next revelation will be that some of those college and university presidents make more money than everyone but the football coach!  (To their credit, the Globe’s readers seem to be a lot smarter–check out the first several comments on the story.)

The interiors of these homes remain a mystery even to many on their respective campuses. And when a reporter requested entry into eight of the residences, many of which do not pay property taxes to their municipalities, the doors to all but one remained resolutely closed.

Well, too bad.  These are private universities, and most of these institutions purchased those homes years ago, and maintain them for the purposes of extending the presidents’ work day.  Also–whose brain child was it to send out this intrepid journalist in early August to ask for admission?  I’m pretty confident the Globe knows that in Boston and Cambridge, August is when everyone is in the Berkshires or Martha’s Vineyard.  No wonder “MIT and Harvard reported that their presidents simply were ‘not around.’”

The one local college president who welcomed a Globe reporter into her home is Wellesley’s Kim Bottomly, who said, “I’m living here as a custodian of history. . . . I’m proud to be able to show off the first building on campus.’’  And in fact, most presidents’ homes are more like public buildings or museums than they are the sanctum sanctorum of a pampered elite.  College and university presidents’ homes are used for official dinners and receptions for the college and alumni/donor fluffing events, which sounds like more after-hours work than awesome “luxury” to me.  I certainly think it’s appropriate for colleges and universities to ask their presidents to share in the sacrifice extracted from the rest of us, but let’s look at other perks or their salaries.

I have no desire ever to live in such “luxury,” as the Globe would have it.  It would mean yearsof having to get fully dressed before leaving my bedroom, and no more blogging on the couch in my bathrobe.  (The housekeeper and chef would be nice, I have to say, and would almost make it worth it if it weren’t for all of the gladhanding and begging I’d have to do in an official residence.) 

How about you?  Is this the focus of your particular outrage, or do you think that universities have a lot of other fat they can trim before tossing their presidents out into the street?  (For example:  let’s zero-out the gratis farm teams for the NBA and the NFL that most coeducational large unis have been duped into funding.  Just a suggestion, folks:  make the football and men’s basketball teams hold bake sales and other fundraisers when they need new uniforms, or to put gas in the van to get them to an away game.  Club sports build character and school spirit!

19 Comments »

19 Responses to “Pointless “gotcha” article, or “gotcha?””

  1. GayProf on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:01 am #

    I am not sure that I really see President residences as a huge cost. It’s not like they build a new house for every president that they get to keep as a parting gift. The staff (which I am also sure isn’t universal) probably represents less than .000001 percent of the entire university budget. I don’t see a story here.

  2. Susan on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Where I am — a relatively new public university — our president lives in a large version of standards 1990s middle class residence. Big open kitchen living room, terrific yard etc. I’m sure the gardening is paid for, and when they have events, they are catered. I don’t think the pres or his wife have anyone brewing the coffee for them. And I’m with GayProf. It’s not actually a huge expense in the scheme of things, and it’s used as extended space for hte university. Somehow people feel more valued if they go to a dinner at the president’s residence, than if you use a room on campus…

  3. Historiann on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:16 am #

    At my college, we were invited I think twice to the President’s house for receptions: once upon matriculation as new first-year students, and once upon graduation. (Both times we were served the college’s “signature” dessert of coffee ice cream and raspberry sorbet together in the same dish.) It was special–so much that I remember part of the menu 20+ years later.

    Then again, we all lived in dorms that were fine dwellings and all on the National Register of Historic Places, so we didn’t think it was unsurpassable “luxury” that the college President had a nice home on campus. I understand that that’s not the experience of most college students, but it certainly is of most of the students who attend the private insitutions described in the Globe story linked above.

  4. Indyanna on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:21 am #

    Mixed feelings, but yeah, this is not the outrage of outrages. What drives me nuts is presidents who you see (beyond official occasions) maybe once every six or eight years. It is really time to definitively break the paradigm by which the prez. functions as “Mrz [do we have something for this yet?] Outside,” the public face of the university, while the provost–who you also don’t ever see–is the proverbial “chief operating officer,” and the deans–who can be pretty scarce themselves–boss the production line, or not, as the case may be. Is there really a tunnel system under every university?

    The prez. can live at Wonderland Ranch, or Graceland, or ‘copter in from the Cape every day, for all I care, if ze prowls the campus a lot, or even shows up in classrooms, asking a lot of dumb questions.

  5. Erica on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:40 am #

    I’ve been in the MIT president’s house. I am obviously very special… oh no, wait, I just took the Pres up on the invitation to all new freshman to come and hang out and have snacks! (In fact, an enterprising journalist would probably be able to “crash” very easily. Or find an incoming freshman who wants a “parent” along?) And about 2/3 of the MIT dorms have better views of the Charles River than Hockfield does, simply because all of them were built along the river. Serendipitous property purchases a hundred years ago seems a bit ridiculous to complain about — or should campuses sell off their prime property just because of a bad economy?

    It’s also worth noting that public universities typically also have nice president’s homes. I went to the University of South Carolina president’s mansion for a faculty wives reception, and it was about as swanky and large as MIT’s. (No river view, but a nice quad instead, and no Boston traffic!)

  6. Historiann on 13 Aug 2009 at 10:55 am #

    Erica–so you are dubious about this passage?

    At MIT one afternoon last week, a recent graduate in neuroscience peered over a concrete wall at the president’s garden. There was a small fountain, a barbecue grill, and a bronze statue of a beaver (MIT’s mascot). The former student, who did not want his name published, said he spent his four years at MIT living in a dorm that overlooks Hockfield’s riverfront home.

    But he’s never been inside the Gray House, as it’s known. Nor have any of his friends, although MIT officials insist that students are regularly invited.

    Funny how few who are allegedly “complaining” on these campuses feels so strongly about the issue that they’re willing to go on the record. This “former student” sounds like a voyeur.

  7. Another Damned Medievalist on 13 Aug 2009 at 11:10 am #

    No, seriously. Housing the president seems just fine to me. SLAC’s president lives in an incredible house, but zie and hir spouse own it, and it’s annoyingly far from campus. I’d far rather have something closer :-)

    But anyway, it seems to me that complaining about providing housing that has belonged to the university for ages is pretty lame. As you and others have pointed out, the home also serves as a place that ‘allows’ the President (or faculty member) to extend their work days at very little cost.

    Now, if you want to talk about trimming the salaries of coaches, colleagues in the professional schools, and getting people to consider more carefully things like catering costs, the kinds of hotels that we put people up in, the perks for speakers (I have one colleague who sent an actual limo to pick up a speaker who was fairly local, rather than either a town car or even asking the person to travel to campus hirself and be reimbursed, and several others who always use speakers as opportunities to go to the most expensive restaurants in town, rather than simply nice restaurants), re-decorating for professional schools rather than putting money into technology or student facilities? I’m all for those sorts of things.

  8. Erica on 13 Aug 2009 at 11:11 am #

    The way that’s written, it sounds like the student desperately wanted to visit (peering over the wall like some sort of Oliver Twist character, lived next door for four years, “never been inside”…) — but frankly, I doubt that he did.

    Given the general personality of that dorm’s residents, I doubt he was really interested in schmoozing and visiting a pompous, upscale old house. Their motto is Sport Death:

    In Senior Haus you will find all kinds of people and lifestyle, we actively encourage individuality and a certain disregard for what many people would consider “normal”. Here you are free to be as “normal” (or “abnormal”) as you want to be…. Come hang out with us, and if you can appreciate the aspiring anarchy of it all, we’ll let you stay.

    They just IGNORE the President’s House for the most part. And that’s pretty consistent with most students on campus — the administration, and fancy buildings like the President’s House, are simply part of the infrastructure that lets you get your degree.

    (Oh, and it’s only recently been renamed Gray House, in 2002.)

  9. Historiann on 13 Aug 2009 at 11:21 am #

    Erica–thanks for the further inside info. I bet that student was the only student hanging around who answered “no” to the question, “have you ever been inside the president’s house?” It was unfair of me to suggest that he was a voyeur.

    ADM: It’s amazing what people will find money for, isn’t it? Priorities, people! Priorities!

  10. Erica on 13 Aug 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Don’t blame yourself — it was written in a way to imply there are a bunch of students clinging to the gates, staring eagerly at the “manicured lawns,” dreaming of a day when they might be invited to visit.

  11. Emily on 13 Aug 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    I don’t think it’s too different from the fact that the President of the United States lives in the White House. Is anyone (apart from maybe a few nutcases) upset that Obama gets an official place to live that puts him at the center of his very demanding job?

    Private universities can invest in whatever they choose. As long as they aren’t neglecting teaching and research to maintain these residences, I don’t really see how it’s a problem.

  12. Bookbag on 13 Aug 2009 at 12:09 pm #

    I agree with you completely, Historiann. I never thought President’s houses seemed like all that much of a perk, and I’ve never heard of any student or faculty member having a problem with the official residences on any campus I’ve been part of. And GayProf is right — it’s not like the house passes into the president’s hands when s/he leaves office.

  13. Janice on 13 Aug 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Our university president’s house is meh — for my first few years I lived within spitting distance of it whilst in my small rental house. It’s quite a ways from campus (almost in the downtown), though, and not possessed of any really scenic views except from the second floor (which is for the family).

    Their residence is fairly big and has a kitchen suitable for caterers who come frequently for various fund-raising or other obligatory social events. I wouldn’t want to live there with two young children, though, as there’s not a lot of indoor or outdoor area conducive to just playing and living.

    As you say, I’d rather focus on eliminating the expensive sports teams before selling off some of a university’s real estate to make a quick buck (and imagine how much the social spending would jump for all the universities that would now have to find another venue for those intimate fundraisers and obligatory socials with students or faculty).

  14. Cassandra on 13 Aug 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    Wasn’t there an article a few years ago about colleges whose presidents DIDN’T use the homes provided for them? Essentially those homes went unused…

    I find THAT to be where a college or institution is wasting money.

    This article is yet another instance of bad journalism creating a “story” where none exists.

    Oh lord…I feel like suggesting the reporter is just jealous. Yuck. I feel like I’m 15 for even thinking it (even if it might be correct).

  15. Historiann on 13 Aug 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    Maybe this is the one you’re thinking of, Cassandra? It’s written from a perspective much friendlier to the perspectives of university presidents and universities. It also argues that at universities where there is an official residence, presidents may choose to live elsewhere at their own peril.

  16. Cassandra on 13 Aug 2009 at 5:57 pm #

    No, Historiann, that wasn’t it.

    If I recall properly, the article was more of a “isn’t this a scandal!” piece that noted that some presidents were choosing not to use the University house but were getting compensated for choosing their own house in a better neighborhood. It was a story that seemed to focus more on all those extra perks mentioned above (e.g. clothing allowance, car allowance, etc.) that ANY of us would kill to get for our own jobs.

    I wish I could remember more…

  17. Notorious Ph.D. on 13 Aug 2009 at 11:25 pm #

    I agree with the general tone of the comments here. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t get a little grumbly when I contemplate that our campus president’s annual housing allowance (on top of salary — an allowance since we have no official residence) is about the same as my annual salary. But I’m feeling grumbly about just about everything having to do with our university’s finances these days.

  18. Tenured Radical on 14 Aug 2009 at 12:11 am #

    Considering that we are relying on (Not So) New President to bring home the bacon so the rest of us aren’t living in a trailer park for retirement, I want him to be well rested.

  19. Buzz on 14 Aug 2009 at 10:39 am #

    I want to add another comment about the president’s house at MIT. I’ve been inside it lots of times, and while it is large, most of the house is not really a residence, per se; most of the square footage is devoted to rooms used for official receptions for students, alumni, and donors. The president has relatively little personal space. I remember finding his exercise bike had been stuck in a odd space behind a stairway (what would be, in MIT parlance, a “tomb”). It was obviously being used there regularly, but apparently there hadn’t been room for it in a more opportune place.

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