Monday, July 11, 2011

Reader Calls for More Context and Comparison on CIRM Salaries

Jim Fossett filed a comment on the "Salary Hooha" item that deserves more attention.

Here is one key paragraph from his remarks:
"The coverage of CIRM salaries is a cheap shot calculated, and quite successfully so, to incite public outrage without providing any context or consideration of what other people doing similar kinds of jobs get. None of this context appeared in any of the original coverage and it should have."
Fossett makes a good point about the need for context by the mainstream media in reporting public salaries. We differ with him about inciting public outrage. There is no need to incite public outrage about public salaries. It has existed in abundance for years, for good and bad reasons. It is not likely to vanish, no matter how much context and comparison is provided.

CIRM is not alone in being targeted in the media in the past week or so. A proposal to pay the president of San Diego State University $400,000 and a press release on state salaries statewide also triggered hostile public commentary.

For the record, here is a list from The Sacramento Bee of the top five public salaries in California in 2009, all of which seem dubious to the California Stem Cell Report, particularly the coaches' salaries. However, that's because we believe the UC system has no business in bigtime intercollegiate athletics – that despite enjoying many football and basketball games while at UCLA. But that is a topic for another web site.
  • Jeff Tedford, UC Berkeley football coach, $2,338,409.39
  • Benjamin Clark Howland, UCLA basketball coach, $2,135,188.22
  • Timothy H. Mccalmont, UCSF professor of medicine, $1,902,464.33
  • Philip E. Leboit, UCSF professor of medicine, $1,854,158.22
  • Ronald Busuttil, UCLA professor of medicine, $1,782,044.62
Fossett's comment can be seen in full at the end of the "Hooha" item.


  1. Jim Fossett11:08 AM

    I'm sorry, but I would argue that you're letting the media off far too easy. You're unquestionably right that the public has a hard time with public sector salaries that are higher than their own, particularly in difficult times like these when lots of people are struggling. Journalists who continue to write stories that focus on the high salaries and nothing else know they can get a rise out of readers and pander to this view.
    As to the original question of whether Thomas' salary is "excessive" or out of line, I went to the Sacramento Bee website and selected all the 83 people on the UCSF payroll who make more than Thomas' $400k salary. Apart from the Med School dean, the Provost, and 3-4 people who appear from their job titles to be some kind of upper level administrators, all are medical school faculty members. So Thomas' salary is likely less than many of the researchers CIRM is funding.
    You also claim that the million dollar plus medical school faculty salaries you report "seem dubious" I wish you'd say why. UCSF and UCLA are both top flight medical schools which expect their faculty not only to teach or supervise medical students, residents and fellows, but also to do large amounts of cutting edge, grant funded research, and generate income for the university by seeing patients in faculty practice plans. Those three faculty members are likely internationally recognized experts in their fields--real stars. There is an international market for faculty like this and the high salaries are likely the result of competition from other med schools. Maybe we should have both listened to our mothers and become doctors.

  2. Jim -- You may be right about this writer letting off the media too easily about their reporting on public salaries. Such stories have been steady fodder for generations. But so have been other stories -- such as perennial gee-whiz stories about science research, with little context about its costs, genuine results and risk. Many other examples of over-simplified reporting could be cited as well.

    In a perfect world, if I were an editor of a major California newspaper, I would turn over the CIRM portfolio to a small group of flinty-eyed scientists/biotech execs and ask them where the agency was missing the boat, where it was doing well and what should be done.

    As for the high salaries of professors I mentioned, I find it difficult to believe that the people of California are receiving that much value from those individuals -- sort of a visceral reaction. However, my understanding is that much of the compensation does not come directly from the state, which raises questions about why it is included in listings of their total STATE compensation. Those kinds of payments do raise fundamental questions about the state's educational priorities and the mission of the University of California at a time when both the state and UC are under extreme financial stress. The fiscal and social environment has changed considerably in the last few years. How many students will we turning away over the next five to 10 years and at what cost to the future of California? Perhaps that should be weighed against some of the high profile science and medicine that universities find comforting.

    As for Thomas' salary being less than recipients of CIRM grants, perhaps the agency is following the NBA and NFL model. In those enterprises, the coaches usually make considerably less than the star athletes.

  3. Jim Fossett6:28 AM

    Sorry to be a pest about an off task topic, but the record needs to be set straight on the salaries paid to medical school faculty members, at least the two at UCSF. Like most medical schools, UCSF pays faculty in a way that reflects the research grants they bring in and the clinical work they do that is reimbursed by insurance companies. Both Professors Mccalmont and Leboit are specialized dermatologists who run very large labs that evaluate and diagnose tens of thousands of specimens a year from all over the world. The tests they do require a lot of very expensive equipment and specialized expertise and get reimbursed by insurance companies at high rates--think $5,000 a test for 90,000 tests a year. The overwhelming bulk of the income both these physicians make come from insurance companies and the grants they get from NIH--both are major money makers for the med school, but the portion of their salary paid for by California tax payers is small and in some years may be nothing at at all. They're basically paying their own salaries and probably those of numerous others by their clinical activity.
    Perhaps more importantly, it only took me 20 minutes on Google and an e-mail to a dermatologist friend to find this out, but none of it has appeared in any of the newspaper coverage over the last few years of California state salaries, including the Stem Cell Report. Not finding out how these folks get paid and not reporting it is lazy and sloppy journalism--we have a right to expect that journalists will do their homework and make sense of things when we read their reporting. Hasn't been done here.
    That said, I think I should also publicly applaud your efforts at California Stem Cell report. I've been an avid reader since its earliest days and couldn't do my own work without the reporting and analysis you've provided over the years.

  4. Re the salary of those professors at UC, they have only been mentioned twice on this blog. The first time was about a year or so ago and was in the context of noting that Alan Trounson was making considerably less as president of CIRM. Most recently, the context again was a comparison -- this time to the CIRM chairman's salary. Part of the point of mentioning them was to illustrate that concerns about high public salaries should start with the highest levels. I agree that the UCSF salaries need more explanation, some of which was provided by Jim. But exploring their justification further is really a topic for another web site. But thank you Jim for shedding more light on the subject.

  5. Re salaries, context and the media, here is what the San Francisco Chronicle had to say last Friday about salary increases at the University of California. The main focus of the story, however, was on a 17 percent increase in tuition. "Patrick Lenz, a UC system vice president, will earn a base salary of $300,000 from taxpayer funds, a $27,500 increase.

    "Santiago Muñoz, an associate vice president, got a 24.1 percent raise, from $201,400 to $250,000. Taxpayers pay 40 percent of his salary.

    "Mark Laret, who runs the UCSF Medical Center, will get a base salary of $935,000, a $195,300 raise, and a retention bonus of $1 million over four years. It's paid from medical center revenue."

    Read more: