Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I Do Not Donate To Universities - Part 2

The other day I reprinted some material from The Hamilton Spectator dealing with the Freedom of Information request it had made to uncover some of the perks meted out to Peter George, the recently retired three-term President of McMaster, and his family.

Today, the paper has a hard-hitting editorial about the attitude of entitlement that afflicts so many of our institutions. I am reprinting it below:

Secrecy makes it all worse

It is too easy to simply rail against former McMaster University president Peter George regarding the university paying his spouse’s airfare so she could accompany him on a week-long trip to Australia in 2006.

He made a ton of money as the head of the university, we tell ourselves. Surely they could have covered the cost themselves. And besides that, he’s making a ton of money — $99,999 a year over 14 years — even after having left McMaster. Why shouldn’t we point our angry fingers his way?

Because this is not just about George and his ability to negotiate a lucrative employment contract and convince the university’s board of governors to pay his wife’s way to Australia.

It is about the “fat-catism” that seems to infect so many of our public institutions. And it is about the fact that those in charge of those institutions, including members of their governing boards, are so out of touch with both the optics of their spending habits and the day-to-day financial realities most of us face. Add to that a heavy shroud of secrecy and it’s no wonder individuals such as George end up at the business end of those angry fingers.

Most people would not object to an executive taking his or her spouse on a business trip. But most of us would also expect that executive to cover the extra cost. That an executive would ask for and be granted coverage of a spouse’s travel expenses smacks of a sense of entitlement and a complete lack of understanding of what the average person would deem appropriate.

What’s hardest to swallow, though, is the idea that expenses such as George’s — which totalled almost $30,000 for the Australian conference — are both so high and so, apparently, not our business.

Universities receive taxpayer funding and are supposed to be accountable to the public. Granted, universities are not solely funded through taxpayers’ money. But the public makes a substantial enough investment in post-secondary education that it is not unreasonable to expect an open accounting of that money.

The financial information regarding the Australia trip was released to The Spectator through a Freedom of Information request. That should not be necessary, just as it should not have been necessary for The Spectator to fight almost two years — between 2006 and 2008 — for disclosure of George’s contract, with details of its perks and job entitlements. It is even more aggravating that the university spent $66,000 on legal fees to prevent details of the contract from being released to The Spectator. McMaster abandoned its fight in June 2008, releasing the information to the paper.

It was a wise change last March when, four months before he took over as McMaster’s president, Patrick Deane’s five-year contract was made public on the university’s website.

Secrecy only makes bad optics even worse.

Lee Prokaska

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