Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Luxury payouts to Nova Scotia university heads unlikely to end

The Nova Scotia government has little control over what universities pay their top administrators despite a memorandum of understanding it says restricts the luxury perks.

So-called administrative leave payments 'sticks in my craw,' says education minister

Nova Scotia universities are paying a great deal for administrators after they leave their jobs. (nerdmeister, Flickr cc)

Controversial and lucrative exit packages — called "administrative leave" — are commonplace in the senior ranks of Nova Scotia universities, according to a review of contracts signed from 2010 to 2015 and obtained by CBC under freedom of information laws.

The compensation deals show the current presidents of Dalhousie, Saint Mary's, St. Francis Xavier, Acadia, Cape Breton University and Mount Saint Vincent are entitled to exit payouts, as were 15 vice-presidents at post-secondary institutions.

However, not all senior university leaders get them. 

At the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the five-year contract for president Dianne Taylor-Gearing, signed in 2014, contains no administrative leave clause. A typical payout is a year of paid leave for every five years worked.

'Unacceptable' perk

Despite declaring the perk "unacceptable" last year, the McNeil government acknowledged in its recent five-year funding agreement with 10 universities that administrative leave is an entitlement at the sole discretion of university board of governors.

"There really is no limit on what they can offer," says Marc Lamoreux, president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers.

The 2015-2019 memorandum of understanding released last week declares boards have "full authority" to set the terms of executive compensation.

"The current MOU won't put a stop to the exit compensation we've seen in the past. There are some notorious cases," says Lamoreux, a chemistry professor at Saint Mary's University.

St. FX and Dalhousie payouts condemned

Two big administrative leave payouts recently sparked widespread public condemnation. 

Former St. FX president Sean Riley collected more than $1.2 million in administrative leave. In 2015 — a year after retiring — he was paid $450,000 in administrative leave.

In his final contract, Dalhousie University president Tom Traves accumulated one year's full salary for each five years he served as president. In 2015, he was the highest paid person at Dalhousie, making $450,000 a year, even though he retired in 2013.

Salaries paid after jobs end

"It's just simply not acceptable for this kind of thing to go on," Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan said last September.

Regan said she expressed her feelings to the chairs of Nova Scotia boards of university governors. 

"I indicated to them that I don't like seeing benefits being paid after people are through their compensation. So having a salary after someone has finished their term of work is not okay."

While not in the same league as the Traves and Riley packages, exit payouts are in the works for Acadia's Ray Ivany and SMU's former president Colin Dodds, two other high-profile university leaders.

Ivany, who made $281,000 last year, is eligible to collect nearly two years salary in administrative leave when he departs in June 2017.

Colin Dodds retired as president part way through 2015 and returned to the teaching ranks. He was paid $321,000 in 2015/2016. That included three months of presidential salary, nine months of professor pay and $55,000 in administrative leave. SMU says Dodds will collect another $64,000 in administrative leave in 2016.

Dodds's final contract also included a "special pension" of  $67,000 a year for 10 years. The pension, which can be passed on to his survivors, was recognition of "long and meritorious service" to the university. The university says he has not started collecting the special pension.

A rose by any other name

In March, former bureaucrat and Dalhousie law school professor William Lahey was hired at $190,000 a year as president of the University of Kings College. He is the first university president appointed since the Liberal government made their displeasure about administrative leave known.

Lahey's contract, which is posted online, includes a one year "paid sabbatical leave" after his term expires. The contract says the purpose is to provide the "equivalent period of sabbatical study" he would have had as a professor. However, Lahey is entitled to the payout, whether or not he takes a leave.

"I would say that is administrative leave," says Lamoureux.

Universities defend practice

Kings says it is a fiscally responsible small university, and it is unfair to compare it to the larger institutions.

"That said, I would say being the president of any university is extremely difficult job, and in order to get qualified people, compensation packages are what they are," says spokesperson Adriane Abbott.

"In our case, we are taking a tenured professor out of his position to bring him to King's and we needed to be respectful of the fact he was coming to us, and when he returns to the classroom, he will need a period of research and renewal prior to going back to teaching."

Nothing can be done

Regan suggests there is nothing she can do about contracts signed before she went public with her objections.

She says the recent MOU does contain an outcome clause that must be negotiated between the province and each university if they want to receive a one per cent annual increase in provincial funding. Nova Scotia will spend about $380 million on universities this year.

'Sticks in my craw'

Lamoureux says he is sceptical.

"There really is nothing in the MOU that ties their hands down. The MOU actually recognizes the sovereignty of boards of governors, which means they can do whatever they want."

Regan says she's made known to university management that administrative leave "sticks in my craw and sticks in the craws of Nova Scotians."

"I expect that they will abide by this when they have new leadership coming in the future," she said.

'Imagine the burden'

The replacement of Ivany next year at Acadia will be a litmus test.

Administrative leave is considered by some, the academic equivalent of stock options given to private sector executives. Lamoureux says he does not begrudge executive compensation, but says reward them while they are working.

"It's out of proportion. Imagine the burden on these universities."

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

With files from Rachel Ward