Editorial: Gov. scores points but loses university's trust: a poor bargain for Vt.

If you were the next president of the University of Vermont, would you take a phone call from Gov. Peter Shumlin?

Not without reservation.

You would not know how your words would be used. You would not know whether the conversation was private or public. You would not know whether the motive for the call was for the good of the university, or the good of the governor.

That’s a problem.

This circumstance has been set up as part of the governor’s campaign to target outgoing UVM President Dan Fogel’s compensation package. Mr. Fogel will receive $410,000 in pay and benefits over the next 17 months, and is scheduled to return to the school as an English professor with a salary of $195,000. The governor thinks both are excessive.

Mr. Fogel is an easy target. Anyone making money is. He’s also wounded at the moment, reeling from the disclosure of his wife’s “inappropriate and imprudent” conduct with one of the school’s top fundraisers.

It’s defensible for the governor to oppose Mr. Fogel’s compensation package. It’s part of the anger Americans feel when they read that Wall Street executives are once again earning what they earned before the recession. The public is sick of it. But there are appropriate ways to express one’s disagreement, and inappropriate ways.

The governor’s way was the latter. He called Mr. Fogel and suggested that he use some of his money to set up a scholarship fund for students who could not afford the school’s tuition. Then he made what Mr. Fogel assumed was a private discussion public. 

It was a cheap shot. It was also sophomorically easy. 

The governor wins a couple of populist points. The trust between the state’s university and the governor’s office is put at risk. 

That’s a poor bargain for Vermont.

There were better ways for the governor to make his case. As governor, he sits on UVM’s Board of Trustees as an ex-officio member, the group that came up with Mr. Fogel’s compensation package. The governor wasn’t present. He said he was busy “running the state of Vermont.”

Please. 

His predecessor, Jim Douglas, had the same demands, and he attended the UVM trustee meetings he thought were essential. He was also thoroughly briefed so that he would not be caught unaware. He did not turn private conversations into public ones for his own political gain.

If Mr. Shumlin was concerned about Mr. Fogel’s compensation package he could have shown up at the trustee’s meeting and voted against it. That he chose not to, is his own fault. That he chose to make a public display of the issue after it caught some political fire, speaks poorly of the governor. He’s kicking someone while they are down, and that subtracts from the responsibilities of the office.

This is not a defense of Mr. Fogel’s compensation package. Although defending it would not be difficult. His severance package is in the middling range of public university presidents. He’s also been responsible for the spiraling growth of UVM over the last ten years, growth that has allowed the university to raise its compensation levels for faculty members to what are generally being paid nationally. The school’s reputation has soared under his leadership, and it remains one of the state’s strongest (if still unharnessed) economic engines.

The bigger issue is one of relationships, and character.

The governor is in a privileged position. His job demands confidentiality. He needs to be able to talk to a business owner without the business owner fearing that the conversation will be made public. A university or college president should feel as if they can have a heart-to-heart conversation without it being turned against them. This is the simple trust that people should expect from their governor.

This is what those who will interview for Mr. Fogel’s job will now ask: How can I expect to be treated if I were to accept the position? What can I expect of my relationship with the governor? 

There are bigger and more important things in governance than scoring easy political points when a person is down. Mr. Shumlin may have tallied a point or two politically, but those fade. Questions of trust do not.

He needs not only to do better, but to be better.


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Addison County Independent