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Public executive or CEO? The perks of former MSU President Simon’s contract

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A Detroit Free Press story revealed some interesting perks in the contract of now-resigned Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon. Some of them are lifetime benefits like free tickets for her and her husband to MSU sporting events.

James Finkelstein is a professor emeritus at George Mason University who has reviewed  the contracts of more than 200 university presidents. He joined Stateside to discuss some of the more unique aspects of Simon’s contract.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

‘That just doesn’t happen’

“We’ve never seen a contract that has gone to that level of specificity to say, for instance, that a president and their spouse or partner…would get lifetime courtside seats to women’s volleyball games. That just doesn’t happen.

“Usually what happens with a university president is if they stay with their university, they get an emeritus title. Or if they retire, they get an emeritus title, and they get the benefits that any other emeritus faculty member would get. Usually, that would include access to the library, continued access to your email, maybe reduced parking fees. But no one else who steps down from their executive position or retires from the university—in any of the presidential contracts we’ve seen—have asked for those kinds of benefits.”

What makes university presidents so special?

“If you talk to the people who help [universities] negotiate these contracts or the search firms that identify these individuals, they say they need to provide these benefits in order to recruit the best and brightest individuals to lead these institutions. But the fact of the matter is, what we’ve seen over the last decade is an increasing, what I call the 'CEO-ization' of university presidents. That is, their compensation, their employment agreements, their benefits have begun to look more and more like that of a corporate CEO than of a university president.

“These are public executives. There are no other public executives that we hire that receive these kinds of benefits…The governor doesn’t receive these kinds of benefits beyond their term. So it is a real question about why this one group of public executives should be treated differently than any other public executive.”

Why is Simon’s contract unique?

“Perhaps the reason that it isn’t as sophisticated as it might be in terms of protecting the interests of the university and the citizens of Michigan is because the individual has been there for so long, that her relationship with the board may well have been more a view that the board is working for her — as opposed to she is working for the board.”

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