When it comes to executive pay, the corporate mindset has developed a "heads I win, tails you lose" philosophy -- do a great job, receive a bonus, do a bad job, receive a bonus. While college presidents will object to the comparison, that sort of responsibility-free thinking has too often grown like ivy on the hallowed halls of Big Academia.
Consider the example of former Penn State University president Graham Spanier, who held his post for 16 years before being forced to resign last year because of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal. This month Mr. Spanier became the third Penn State official to face charges for an alleged cover-up of Sandusky's criminal activities.
Mr. Spanier deserves the presumption of innocence due to any person charged. But what he doesn't deserve is to be paid royally for his efforts as president even if he is eventually found innocent of criminal charges. The biggest and most damaging scandal in Penn State's history happened on his watch.
End of story.
But now it is revealed that Mr. Spanier will receive a severance and salary package worth nearly $3.3 million. It is no comfort to learn that a large portion of it will be deferred until 2017. Many ordinary Pennsylvanians who struggle to pay ever-rising tuitions would love to be so disgraced.
It's not as if Mr. Spanier is a charity case. He was among the highest paid university presidents in the nation. In calendar year 2011, he was paid $3,255,762, which included his $700,000 salary as president, $82,557 of taxable benefits and one-time compensation totalling $2,473,205.
This is not about Mr. Spanier being paid too much while he was president, because many would argue that before the scandal he had done a good job. Nor is it about faculty tenure, which Mr. Spanier has although he is now on leave. It is about the unfairness of the golden parachute. Do highly paid college presidents need such parachutes at all?
This is also about Penn State's continuing problem with transparency. What details are known about Mr. Spanier's package came about because the university was shamed into divulging some information, but it still won't say how much Mr. Spanier will receive after taxes. For no good reason, Penn State is mostly exempt from the state's Right-to-Know Law, despite receiving state funding. That has to end, just as taxpayer-assisted golden parachutes that float away into the stratosphere must be brought back to earth.