The $410,000 question

Our view: We still don't have all the answers about the bonus paid to a former UM School of Law dean — or certainty that it was the university's only financial lapse

March 07, 2010

The debate over the $410,000 in bonus payments to former University of Maryland School of Law dean Karen Rothenberg has largely devolved into an argument between two camps. Her defenders say that the focus on the payments is smearing the record of an excellent and transformative leader for the school, and her detractors are appalled by the amount of money being thrown at a public employee. There's truth to both sides, but that argument misses the point.

Ms. Rothenberg was, by all accounts, an excellent dean. Under her tenure, the school's academic reputation improved, its endowment soared and its programs expanded. Her colleagues at the law school say she could easily have left Maryland when her contract expired and gone on to a more lucrative post at an even more prestigious institution. It's no doubt also true that her salary - about $370,000 a year - may be large for a public employee but isn't compared to what she might be able to make at a top-tier private law school or in private practice. They argue that keeping her as dean for another two years was worth that much and more to the school and that, at heart, former University of Maryland, Baltimore President David Ramsay did the right thing in negotiating what amounted to a retention bonus.

But $370,000 a year is a huge salary for anyone, particularly someone who effectively works for the state. It is, after all, well more than double the governor's salary, and at a time when furloughs are making it tough for rank-and-file workers to make ends meet, it's galling to think that it wasn't enough for her.

But Ms. Rothenberg's record is not the issue; nor is the propriety of Mr. Ramsay trying to retain her or even the amount of money involved. The issue is the loose fiscal management over such extra payments at UMB, of which Ms. Rothenberg's $410,000 may only be the most egregious example.

According to a state legislative audit and testimony by University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, this is what happened in her case. As she neared the end of her contract more than three years ago, Ms. Rothenberg complained that she was underpaid relative to colleagues at other top law schools and was interested in pursuing other opportunities. Mr. Ramsay decided to negotiate a retention package to keep Ms. Rothenberg as dean during a major fundraising drive.

The University System of Maryland has procedures in place for addressing salary inequities, but they weren't followed in this case. Instead, Mr. Ramsay consulted with a human resources officer at the university about ways to boost her compensation. The option Mr. Ramsay chose was to pay Ms. Rothenberg $350,000 for a sabbatical she was eligible for but which she had not taken. She did not submit any of the paperwork that is ordinarily required for a sabbatical. Neither the university system nor the legislature was informed of the payment.

During the next two years, Ms. Rothenberg received five payments totaling $60,000 for summer research. Ms. Rothenberg did research, but such aid is only supposed to be offered to faculty whose contracts call for 10 months of work, and Ms. Rothenberg was a 12-month employee. In addition, the payments were approved by Ms. Rothenberg's subordinate, not her superiors.

In an interview last week with The Sun's editorial board, Mr. Kirwan portrayed these lapses as an aberration, and although he said the university is taking a closer look at UMB's finances, he appeared intent on putting the affair behind him. Mr. Ramsay has stepped down from his post months earlier than he planned and under circumstances that belied what was otherwise a notable career at the university. Ms. Rothenberg has agreed to repay the $60,000, and the attorney general is looking into the remaining $350,000. And of the $55 million in nonsalary compensation doled out by UMB during the years in question, Mr. Kirwan said, the $410,000 to Ms. Rothenberg were the only payments not covered by a specific university policy.

Mr. Kirwan is right that the $55 million figure distorts the scope of the actual problems the auditors found, but there are legitimate questions about more than just Ms. Rothenberg's $410,000. Just because the university system has policies governing the other payments doesn't mean all the policies were followed correctly or that the policies were strong ones.

Auditors looked into 36 extra compensation payments at UMB in fiscal years 2007-2009, including summer research stipends and bonuses. They were rife with problems. The auditors found weak policies for summer research compensation; the school did check to make sure the professors did the research, but it had no clear way of determining how much an employee would be paid. The university spent more than $1.1 million on such payments over that period.

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