TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Payday for university employees can pay off in newsworthy stories

Let’s face it, we’re all curious to know who’s got the biggest one on campus.

Salary, of course. What employees are paid at state colleges and universities is a matter of public record, and obtaining the information today often is as easy as an online search.

As blogger Dan Reimold of College Media Matters reports, the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, the Daily Illini, markedly increased its online traffic by adding the feature of an employee salary guide where, by depressing one button, debt-burdened students can depress themselves over football coach Ron Zook’s $1.06 million salary.

Many professional news websites offer state salary data searchable by the employee’s name, title or function. Among the better examples are those hosted by the Raleigh News & Observer and the Sacramento Bee. While this data should be readily available from each university on request, there are also any number of alternative sources if a university drags its feet, including the governor’s budget office, the state auditor’s office, or the state Board of Regents or Trustees. (And under most state public-records laws, the requester has the option of asking for the data in searchable database form, if that’s how the agency itself maintains the records.)

Throwing the data out for public scrutiny is fine, but — especially in these difficult economic times — salary statistics should be just the start of the reporting work.

For instance, an enterprising journalist may want to inquire how medical-school professors are impacted by salary freezes or rollbacks affecting other university employees. Faculty at teaching hospitals typically receive a large portion of their compensation from patient fees. Those fee dollars often are dispensed outside of the normal state budgeting process, so a directive to cut state salary spending by 5 percent doesn’t necessarily impact money from patient revenues. It’s a legitimate question whether doctors, who cluster at the top of the salary rankings already, are sharing state workers’ pain or being exempted from it.

Similarly, it’s valid to ask whether colleges are adding administrators, or raising their pay, while belt-tightening in other areas more directly impactful on the quality of services students receive. While it may have been defensible to establish a high-six-figure benchmark in the 1990s when colleges were struggling to compete with private employers for the best talent, the claim that the provost will leave for a better job without an $87,000 pay increase is less convincing in today’s economy.

Remember, however, that budget reports may tell only part of the story. Nonprofit university affiliates, including foundations and athletic associations, sometimes supplement top officials’ pay and perks with contributor dollars that don’t always show up in state budgets. To get the complete picture may require searching the IRS Form 990 reports for the foundation or association. Those are public documents that must be provided on demand, but if your institution resists, they’re also on file here with Guidestar.