Ventriss Op-Ed: Time to Acknowledge UVM’s Contributions [5.9.14]

A recent Free Press editorial commented on the University of Vermont’s strategy of attracting top higher education leaders through its executive compensation practices. As a UVM alumna and Trustee, I feel compelled to respond.

Nearly a year ago, UVM President Tom Sullivan responded to a very similar Free Press editorial, stating, “The reality is that hiring highly talented people requires investment. You don’t convince an exceptionally well-qualified individual who has numerous professional options to uproot a family, move to another state and join our University by offering a compensation cut. You pay them what they’re worth in the context of the market in which we compete, and the experience, position, and academic discipline of the individual.” (Burlington Free Press, 5/30/2013). I’m certain any other major employer in Vermont would say the same thing.

UVM’s national academic reputation and Vermont’s quality of life helps in recruiting national talent, but there are also recruitment challenges, as revealed in a recent Free Press headline: “Top earners pay more income taxes in Vermont than they would in other states.” (Burlington Free Press, 4/10/2014).

What is omitted in the Free Press narrative is recognition of the value of the contribution the University and its people make to the economic, cultural, and intellectual fabric of the state as a whole. The Roundtable’s report entitled, “Becoming the Knowledge State”, acknowledges that, “In the knowledge-based economy, the potential for growth relies largely on innovation and ideas…higher ed has nurtured innovation, supported new enterprise, and brought together ideas, knowledge, facilities and expertise so that business and jobs can grow.”

Let’s imagine that Vermont had an opportunity to bring an entity that will hire nearly 3,500 full-time employees, 78 percent of whom will be paid at or above the national median; the fourth largest employer in the state with an annual economic activity impact of more than $1 billion, and generating more than $500 million a year from out-of-state sources. That entity is in fact the University today.

But there’s more… it also includes a top-ranked medical school with close affiliation with a top-ten academic medical center, providing outstanding patient care and clinical research to the region. It devotes more than $100 million per year to ensure that students can access an affordable college education, and its researchers win $106 million in competitive grants and contracts, mostly from out-of-state sources.

Most would agree that this organization represents a great investment proposition for Vermont, and with a ROI of 24:1, they’re right.

The fact that the University offers good paying jobs that fuel the economy and contribute significantly to Vermont’s largest single revenue source (income taxes) is something to celebrate. But paying its employees at or close to the median among comparable peers is not excessive, it is necessary.

Of course, wise stewardship of state dollars is essential. But, remember: no part of the University’s state appropriation, which is one of the smallest in the country, goes to support the salaries of central administrators.

The Free Press’s continuing targeting of good paying jobs at one of Vermont’s most important national talent magnets misses the mark. It’s time to acknowledge the University’s contributions, which have continued for 223 years. Without its flagship, Land Grant research University, the Vermont economy would be a very different place.

 Lisa Ventriss, of South Burlington, is President of the Vermont Business Roundtable and a UVM Trustee.

The full body of the above opinion piece appeared in the May 9, 2014 print edition of the Burlington Free Press.