What is it, exactly, that makes a college, in the eyes of the public and students, prestigious? Most of us know the name of a prestigious university when we hear it. Its name often rings in the public sphere, whether for its athletics or for professors’ or students’ achievements, with big, grand-sounding names for awards. Sometimes it’s just the fact that they’ve been around so long.
And why beat around the bush? While UCR in some aspects may certainly deserve the recognition of being prestigious, the institution many of us have come to call home is still sometimes undeservedly called “UC Rejects,” or referred to in a demeaning manner. Despite numerous awards, rankings and other recognitions, too much of the general public perception of the school is underwhelming or at best neutral.
It really puts the school in a tricky position. What can we do to change general public perception of us to show that we have the same capabilities as these so-called prestigious universities, while at the same time not compromising our values of diversity and commitment to students? It is a difficult question, with no real easy answer.
As UCR continues to debate the best way of moving forward, the UC just announced that UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox was awarded a 5.1 percent raise in his salary, from $364,620 to $383,160. The chancellors of UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz also had their salaries raised to equal Wilcox’s (the three are now tied for the lowest in the UC system). A spokesman for the UC Office of the President said in an email to the Press Enterprise, “President (Janet) Napolitano and the regents felt strongly that it was important to adjust the salaries of our lowest-paid chancellors as a first step toward longer-term changes that will make UC pay more competitive with other peer public and private universities.”
So what does this do for us? It’s a case of having to play the system to beat and break the system. Or at least, that’s what we want the answer to be.
While some may see Wilcox’s pay increase as a waste of money when he is already paid a six-figure salary, in the scheme of a university’s budget, it’s not that much. The roughly $20,000 being added to the chancellor’s salary, while serving as a nice boost, is enough to pay only about 1.5 in-state tuitions. What this increase does do, however, is take a step toward achieving the thing that that UCR lacks: widespread public prestige.
Let us be clear: This is not the ideal system. This is not how we think that gaining prestige and reputation should work. UCR is known for doing many good things in the immediate community, but our lack of reach primarily outside of our region will not get us further. The campus is home to the California Poet Laureate, maintains the largest solar array in the UC system and has made huge advancements in the agricultural sciences, in addition to countless other practical and academic contributions. Universities that are known for long histories of greatness and accomplishments, however, help keep those great people there with a fatter paycheck than just an “average” school. By upping the chancellor’s pay, UCR, and the UC in general, is showing to the public that we are an institution of prestige, and we pay like one too.
Like it or not, executive compensation at prestigious universities is higher than elsewhere. We can find an example at Columbia University, with president Lee C. Bollinger being paid $2.3 million per year or even within our own UC, with UC San Francisco’s Sam Hawgood being the highest-paid UC chancellor at $750,000 per year. If we want to draw prestigious talent, we have to pay like a prestigious university. Financial incentive shouldn’t necessarily be the key motivator — but it often is.
While we are doing things such as increasing the chancellor’s pay to help build our reputation, we are also doing things like joining the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a consortium of 11 universities dedicated to helping a greater number of low-income and minority students graduate by using effective practices already administered at each respective campus. Joining organizations such as this continues UCR’s tradition of promoting diversity and assistance for low-income students. UCR hasn’t sold out with this pay increase — it’s still reaching out to underserved communities and helping first-generation college students make it through college. Wilcox has shown he is not going to grind UCR’s focus on inclusiveness into the ground. When we couple this with the pay increase, it shows that acquiring prestige and maintaining diversity in economic background and heritage are not mutually exclusive.
This is what we would hope is happening. It’s entirely possible that it’s not the case, and the money is just going to line the chancellor’s pockets. But Chancellor Wilcox hasn’t yet given us reason to believe that he’s only in it for the money. All things considered, he’s held true to the university’s attempts to increase access to the UC. We are obviously not university officials, and do not know the exact motivations behind every decision and action. As unfortunate as having to rely on superficial prestige rather than the accolades we already have is, it is a reality we face as a rapidly growing university.
And shouldn’t ranking number two overall in a college rankings list be more of a crowning achievement rather than only something for the university’s social media pages to brag about? Shouldn’t beating out Harvard in the Washington Monthly rankings more than one time gain us some kind of reputation? Whether we like it or not, when it comes to reputation the game isn’t always fair, and even playing hard isn’t enough sometimes.
Over the long run, definitions of success and the need for prestige can certainly be changed, and it’s up to us to make it a more egalitarian way of thinking. But for now, playing the system the best you can is a significant factor in your own success. The change could end up helping UCR and similar institutions gain more of the public prestige they deserve — and that will also bring the ability to change what prestige means.
We’ll just keep our poker face and sunglasses on, and lay our cards down one by one till we get there.