UW System recommends pay raises for top executives amid hiring searches

Market data show pay ranges for UW-Madison chancellor 21 percent below market rate, 32 percent below for UW-Milwaukee chancellor

A sunset can be seen behind Van Hise Hall on UW-Madison's campus
The sun sets behind Van Hise Hall at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Angela Major/WPR

As the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents works to fill two top leadership positions, market data suggest current salary ranges for UW executives are well below those at peer institutions.

Searches are currently underway for the next UW System president and UW-Madison chancellor. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has held the UW System president position since June 2020. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced she would step down from her position in May 2022 to become the first female president of Northwestern University in Illinois.

According to a 2020 ranking of the highest paid university leaders in the U.S. by Business Insider, current Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro was paid a base salary of $1,096,539 that year.

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On Thursday, members of the Regents’ Business and Finance Committee heard a presentation by UW System Administration Vice President for Human Resources Daniel Chanen about how market data compares with current salary ranges for the president’s position and that of chancellors at UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and the state’s other, comprehensive universities.

The analysis showed substantial growth in ranges for chancellors, particularly for those at UW-Madison peer institutions. On average, base salaries were 21.67 percent higher than the current range for UW-Madison’s leadership position, which is currently set at a low of $493,240 and a high of $739,860. Rather than a 20-plus percent increase, Chanen said UW System administration was recommending a 9.5 percent increase in the UW-Madison chancellor range which would set a low of $540,098 and a high of $810,147.

Market data show salaries for peer institutions were 32 percent higher than UW System’s current range for the UW-Milwaukee chancellor position. Salaries were 7.1 percent higher among peers than the range for chancellors at all other UW-System schools.

For the UW System president position, market data show the average salary among peer institutions was $687,461. The current average salary for UW president is $611,667. UW System administration recommended a 6.77 percent increase, which would be an average of $653,088.

Midway through the presentation, Regent Tracey Klein took issue with the recommended increases being lower than the peer average stating that recruiting talented leaders is what drives the UW System to be the “best it can be.”

“And this seems like we’re ignoring the data actually and putting our own ranges in place,” said Klein. “And I’m not sure that’s a really solid process.”

Regent Ashok Rai also voiced concern about voting on salary ranges below market rate. He said doing so might force the board to reconsider and significantly raise ranges again in December 2022.

“So, we could be setting ourselves up for even a bigger decision in a year by kicking the can down and not doing what the range says and trying to understand the 9.5 (percent) versus that,” said Rai.

Ultimately, members of the regent committee voted to table any decision on salary ranges.

According to data from the UW System Accountability Dashboard, chancellors aren’t the only employees whose salaries are lower than those at peer institutions. On average, faculty across the system made about 16.83 percent less than peers during the 2018-2019 school year.

On Thursday, Thompson discussed a 2 percent raise for all UW employees included in the current state budget.

“It’s very possible the committee will not meet until January, which means salary increases could be delayed, which I feel sad about,” said Thompson. “But I’ll be happy when we’re able to do this. We continue to believe that the pay plan is imminent, and we encourage our faculty and staff to continue planning as though the plan will go into effect on schedule.”

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.