Country club memberships, car allowances, and huge severance packages may sound like fringe benefits a Wall Street investment banker would enjoy, but in this case it's describing the lifestyles of community college and university presidents in Illinois. A state Senate panel report obtained by the Chicago Tribune says these heads of higher education are living in a "fantasy world of lavish perks" funded by taxpayers—and some of these perks have been doled out behind closed doors and without public input. "This has led to a culture of arrogance and a sense of entitlement reflected in many of these executive compensation plans, with an apparent disregard for middle-class families whose taxes and tuition dollars are funding these exorbitant salaries and excessive fringe benefits," the report by the Senate Democratic caucus asserts.
The colleges are defending these benefits with an oft-heard argument for high executive salaries: They need to lure the best talent and keep it. And in some of the cases cited in the Tribune, arguments are made that perks meet logistical challenges: A rep for Carl Sandburg College President Lori Sundberg, for example, tells the paper that Sundberg needs her $20,000-plus car stipend because the college has three campuses over 3,000 square miles. And the country club memberships? Colleges claim the clubs are great venues for administrators to entertain possible donors. Sen. Bill Cunningham's not buying it. "If [they have] a compensation package in excess of $300,000, they should be able to afford their own country club membership," he tells the Tribune. Planned reforms by the panel include state audits, severance caps, and a mandate that proposals for bonuses and other perks be made public for 30 days before approval.