Research scores of US top brass fail to shine

The ‘relatively modest’ research reputations of some senior US university leaders make their pay ‘grotesquely unmerited’, claims author of report

July 20, 2016
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Many university leaders would struggle to get even a junior academic job in their own institution if they were judged on their research record alone, a study has claimed.

Several senior university executives in the US analysed by the study, published in the journal Tertiary Education and Management, had no research record at all, while some vice-presidents for research registered only “relatively modest” citation scores.

In one case, just two of the 12 vice-presidents at a US institution had an h-index – the score used to assess an academic’s research impact – worthy of a lecturer seeking tenure, the paper claims.

The paper, titled "Are you overpaying your academic executive team? A method for detecting unmerited academic executive compensation", was written by Joshua Pearce, associate professor in material science and engineering at Michigan Technological University, who compared the h-index scores of vice-presidents for research at America’s 10 largest universities against their remuneration.

While all 10 executives were found to have an h-index of “respectable academics”, one vice-president for research had the same score expected of junior academics seeking tenure (12) – relatively low for an older research academic.

One other vice-president for research had an h-index of 19, while four had scores in the mid-20s – well below the 45+ score indicative of a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Dr Pearce explains.

When their h-index scores were compared with their salaries, generally above $300,000 (£204,000) a year, five of the 10 universities analysed were “inappropriately compensating their vice-president (research) based on their proven research impact”, Dr Pearce argues.

When these individuals’ pay per h-index point was compared with professors working at their institution, many were paid more than double in some cases, he adds.

While he recognised that some university executives were recruited for their management abilities rather than research background, those in charge of research strategies should “provide leadership in research excellence through example and experience".

Dr Pearce told Times Higher Education that his analysis showed that executive pay is “often grotesquely unmerited” and had contributed to rocketing student tuition fees, which had trebled in the US over the past 30 years.

“Sadly, academic executives throughout the English-speaking world are often rewarded for the efforts of their subordinates – normal faculty – rather than any of their own actions,” he said.

“If a university’s research income goes up in a year by $10 million because a faculty member brings in one big grant, it normally has nothing to do with the efforts or 'leadership' of the president or vice-president for research, yet their salaries are often directly tied to it,” he added.

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