Everyone from the Higher Education Coordinating Board and the state's larger universities seems to have a tin ear over public outrage at college costs.
Especially the question of pay for some administrators.
Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, would hold state-funded universities more accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars. (House Bill 2859.)
The move was prompted by anger among Tri-Citians and others in Eastern Washington over the executive salaries collected by administrators whose universities are cutting budgets and raising tuition.
The rancor was further fueled by the unpopular transfer of a high-priced history teacher, Steven Hoch, to the Tri-City campus of Washington State University after a disagreement in Pullman, home of the main campus.
The short version is that Hoch was forced out of hisjust-acquired job as provost less than two months intohis tenure after an altercation with another administrator.
His contract allowed him to stay on as tenured faculty at 82 percent of his $300,000 provost's salary.
Apparently thinking the old "out of sight, out of mind" saw was still operable in the days of mass communication (theyhave an entire college focused on that discipline in Pullman) they transferred him to the Tri-Cities.
So, the Richland campus now has a history teacher with a $246,000 salary.
His pay doesn't come out of WSU Tri-Cities' budget, but the transfer was still a big deal around here, made bigger when retired school teacher Laurel Piippo took up a campaign against wasteful spending in the state's colleges.
It hit a nerve. Actually, quite a few of them. Our economy here is better than most but there seems something almost trough-like about the salaries of some of our university presidents, not just one faculty member.
A recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked University of Washington President Mark Emmert's $905,000 annual salary second in the nation for public universities.
Ohio State University President Gordon Gee was first at $1.5 million.
Yet, Haler notes, the pay earned by our top university executives is disproportionate to money spent on higher education in the state, citing reports that Washington ranks 48th in the nation for higher education funding.
Bill Lyne, president of the United Faculty of Washington State, told Herald reporter Michelle Dupler that he supports the notion of holding the line on executive salaries.
However, he worries Haler's the bill will divert discussion from the real issue of funding for higher education that the Legislature is tackling this session.
With a $2.6 billion revenue shortfall for the remainder of the 2009-11 biennium, cuts have been proposed to higher education funding as well as student financial aid, although Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she'd like to see the Legislature find a way to save financial aid programs.
"I'm worried the symbolic might overshadow the reality," Lyne said to the committee discussing Haler's bill. "If we fired all six (public) university presidents, we would save $3 million. ... I don't think this should dominate the conversation about higher education or higher education funding this session."
He said the reason salaries for public university presidents in Washington are high compared with other states is that the schools are underfunded by the state.
That means university presidents must in essence be professional fundraisers rather than the academics of old, Lyne added.
"A better way to solve the problem is to better fund universities."
Supporting our universities -- or rather, the students -- is of course the more important task.
But it is a mistake to undervalue the political potential in the red-hot example with a human face on it. The executive salaries in the state's universities serve that purpose, at least.
It may not be the first thing that needs to be fixed, but when the first thing is fixed, executive salaries should be part of the solution.