RAY PFEIFFER/Herald photo

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents held its last meeting of the year Friday, with much of the discussion focused on a need to make salaries for top administrative positions more competitive.

Peter McGrath, president of the National Association of State Land Grant Universities and Colleges, told the regents they fall far below the average in salary compensation for administrators.

"We can't all be average, [but] it is reasonable for the University of Wisconsin System and its campuses to consider developing a plan to bring the salaries of its executive officers to a medium that fits within the framework, let's say of the Midwest," McGrath said. "All of the campuses in the system are led by individuals that are significantly compensated below the medium."

The concerns McGrath raised were not foreign to the UW System, as the regents have bemoaned losing top faculty members and administrators to higher paying out-of-state jobs in recent years.

"The challenge is to convince the public and some of the decision makers such as the governor and the Legislature that a more competitive system is in the interest [of] the state of Wisconsin," Walsh said. "There is a direct correlation between per capita income and number of baccalaureate degrees. The solution to your economic problems is to graduate more, and to graduate more we need to get the engine going and we need better leaders for the engine."

McGrath illustrated the public relations challenge of selling the public on relatively high salaries for university officials, as he said the reality is "too many people" in American society struggle economically.

"A salary, say, of $100,000 a year for a university official can appear to be like a million bucks to some single mom working at a checkout counter at a Wal-Mart store or a clerk operating a convenience store," he said.

"But if the University of Wisconsin System is to remain competitive … it needs the best possible talent to further the economic welfare of the state and region and, yes, to further the well-being of that single mom or that convenience store clerk."

To address this public relations issue, McGrath suggested the regents take up a public education effort to explain why competitive salaries are for the benefit of Wisconsin and its people, as well as a plan for the "phased increase" of salaries over a number of years to keep the system more competitive.

"It's not for their sake but for the good of Wisconsin," he stressed. "For the good of the state, because the state needs executive leaders who can be nimble, resourceful and mobilize brain power to promote the state's economic and social strength."

In addition to hearing McGrath's presentation, the regents passed a resolution asking the chancellors to provide a recommendation on whether fixed-term contracts should be further considered.

Attendance at the Thursday and Friday meetings was less than stellar. Six of the seventeen regents were absent from Friday's meeting, and Thursday's meeting of the Education Committee did not have a quorum, as only Regent Roger Axtell was present.

"It happens sometimes," UW System spokesperson Doug Bradley said. "This was unusual, I think, to be short that many, [but] there's very few people on the board who are retired."

Via telephone, Regent Mike Spector informed the board his committee regarding the employee disciplinary process was unable to make a recommendation Friday, as originally intended. He said a status letter will be sent next week to the chair of the Legislative Audit Committee.

"We have concluded that we could not complete a recommendation of the quality we would like in time for today's meeting," Spector said. "Our next meeting is Dec. 15 and I anticipate completion of our work … in January."

In closed session, the regents approved David Wilson as the new chancellor of UW-Extension and UW Colleges, at a salary of $178,000. Wilson will take office May 1.