Local News

Chancellors pan idea of limiting administrators' payouts

Posted August 13, 2009 6:03 p.m. EDT
Updated August 13, 2009 7:19 p.m. EDT

— Chancellors at University of North Carolina campuses said Thursday that limiting payouts to former administrators who retire or move to faculty positions could hurt the schools.

UNC President Erskine Bowles wants more controls placed on so-called "retreat rights," saying they are too generous and need more accountability and definition.

"Retreat rights are standard in the industry. I, however, believe the package we offer today is slightly more generous than it needs to be," Bowles told the UNC Board of Governors.

The issue gained statewide attention recently because of a pay deal promised to former North Carolina State University Provost Larry Nielsen, who resigned in May amid questions about his role in the hiring and promotion of Mary Easley, the wife of former Gov. Mike Easley.

Mary Easley's hiring by the university is part of a federal grand jury investigation into the dealings the former governor had with friends and contributors while in office.

Nielsen plans to take a faculty position at N.C. State, and former Chancellor James Oblinger, who also resigned over the Mary Easley controversy, approved a pay package for Nielsen that would have allowed him to continue collecting his full provost's salary for six months. The pay package also would have reduced Nielsen's salary to that of a professor over a three-year period, which would violate a university policy limiting payouts to one year.

The N.C. State Board of Trustees voided the payout in June, saying it never approved the deal.

Bowles recommended limiting paid leaves before administrators return to teaching to six months instead of the year now allowed. He also said all payout packages should be approved by a campus Board of Trustees and possibly by the Board of Governors as well.

Chancellors bristled a bit at the proposal, saying retreat rights are an important part of the compensation package they can offer to attract top talent to administrative positions.

"You can't denude incentives and hope to remain competitive and great," University of North Carolina-Wilmington Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo said.

DePaolo said people need the full year before going back into the classroom to get up to speed on current technology and teaching in their fields.

"It would be unthinkable to return to the classroom without significant time to retool," she said. "Unless I have significant time to re-educate myself, I will be an embarrassment and probably a danger in the classroom."

Current chancellors and senior administrators would be grandfathered in under any policy change. Still, North Carolina Central University Chancellor Charlie Nelms said he might not have accepted the job overseeing the Durham campus if the UNC system had limited retreat rights.

DePaolo also compared the issue to the lucrative deals campuses offer athletic coaches, including bonuses and buyout clauses.

"It says a lot about the values of our country that there's not similar outrage over that," she said.

Bowles agreed that "attracting and keeping great leaders is our No. 1 job," but he and Hannah Gage, the chairwoman of the Board of Governors, said officials also need to consider how best to maintain the image of the UNC system.

"We're a public system, and we've begun to lose some of the public's confidence in how we operate," Gage said.

The Board of Governors isn't expected to vote on a policy change for several months.