To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Univ. admin. salaries: Are they really as big as we claim?

Brandeis University is, for tax and legal purposes, a nonprofit organization that is tax-exempt. One of the requirements of such organizations is that the university is bound by law to produce and publish public information documents that reveal the university administration’s salaries and benefits. Anyone can access these forms online and, as of the publishing of this article, the latest information available to the public is from the 2021 fiscal year which encompasses 2020 profits and salaries. The form which has all this information is known as the 990. The importance of this document is that it keeps nonprofit organizations financially accountable to their patrons and employees.


However, the reason this information is important is because it dispels the notion of President Liebowitz’s high salary and serves as a potent point of comparison to other presidents of local colleges and universities. This is by no means a defense of President Liebowitz but is an attempt to try and connect the student body to the moreso removed parts of the university’s administration. Frequently, students can be heard lamenting when they feel the university is not giving adequate funding to campus resources that “Ron is paid too much” and “Why is that money not used elsewhere on campus?” Hopefully, in comparing Brandeis’ 990 to that of other local schools it can be seen how Brandeis’ administration is not compensated to the same degree.


First, knowing how to read a 990 is important as it can appear to be a far more convoluted document to read than other publicly available tax documents. The introductory pages are the rules and regulations that nonprofit organizations must follow as put in place by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but what follows is the true meat of the document. This portion of the document looks like an Excel template containing all the information people would be interested in. It lists the individual’s name, their role in the organization, how many hours a week they work and in the first column to the right of their name should be their direct income from the organization.


Because of the information contained in the 990 form, most nonprofit organizations bury those PDFs in deep and hidden portions of their websites to discourage public access while technically complying with publishing requirements. What that translates to is this: many 990 forms are hidden on Google searches and only open to the PDF so hyperlinks cannot be made efficiently without having the original copy of the document. For the 990 documents used for this article, all of them fell into such a category, but older documents can be found on sites such as ProPublica.


But once found, these documents shed important light on the reality of the university and all nonprofit organizations, expenditures. The second important thing to note when reading 990 forms is where swollen salaries exist and where they do not. Among university administrations the salaries which commonly will be the highest are: President, Provost, Chief Financial Office, Chief Investment Officer and (if the school is a highly rated Division One athletic school) certain coaches such as football, soccer or basketball.


So to make worthwhile comparisons in higher education salaries four colleges and universities in total have been reviewed: Brandeis University, Boston University (BU), Wellesley College and Merrimack College. They were chosen for a few reasons. BU is a similar research university to Brandeis so the endowment and federal funding between the two schools is similar and Wellesley and Merrimack College were chosen because they have similar undergraduate enrollment to Brandeis. No comparison is perfect but the collage of these higher education organizations paints a unique picture with which to view Brandeis.

In 2020, Brandeis University, as reported in their 990 form, dished out roughly $800,000 to our president—a salary that does not exceed one million dollars and in truth is a reduction from prior years. As detailed in the 2018 990 form, Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz was paid nearly $900,000 directly from the university. The salary reduction can be accredited to any number of things be it the pandemic, arguments with the Board of Trustees or anything else. Now it is not that President Liebowitz and the entire administration were faced with pay cuts; Provost Lisa Linch’s salary was shown to increase by roughly $40,000 from 2018 to 2020. A sign that the university is not necessarily faced with reduced finances but is perhaps reallocating funds in other places.


However, it can be said that $800,000 is still a large sum of money for any individual salary and while that is not wrong, it is not as bad as it could be. At BU, in 2020, their university president, Robert Brown, grossed roughly $1.6 million in direct salary from the university. For another Boston area R1 university that salary is considerably higher than Brandeis, showing that Brandeis has not capped President Liebowitz’s salary and could raise it if the administration so deemed it. But what about other similarly sized schools in terms of undergraduate enrollment? Well, at Wellesley College, President Johnson netted roughly $600,000 in her salary, and at Merrimack College, President Hopey grossed $550,000 in his. Both are schools of similar undergraduate size to Brandeis but lack a graduate student population and thus do not receive the same level of money from grants, endowment and research funds. 


Thus, to have Presidential salaries which only fall behind our own by no more than $250,000 is not as large a gap as one may think. What the 990 form reveals is that while President Liebowitz makes a fantastic earning he is by no means maxing out the Brandeis payroll. Funds at Brandeis are certainly concentrated on student use and development when they could just as easily be plugged into the administrative machine. This is not to say that Brandeis University does not have its financial faults and does not give everything it could to students, there certainly exists room for growth in those areas, but it does reveal to our campus and the public that a true focus exists on the student experience. The 990 is a powerful document for accountability purposes and knowing where to find it and how to read it can give a campus the information it may need to see if their administration does commit themselves to the students they are meant to serve.

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