College foundations

The revelation last week that G. Edward Hughes, former president of Northern Kentucky’s Gateway Community & Technical College, will receive $348,000 from a private foundation set up to support the school raises many concerns. Among them:

Even though it was described as an incentive for Hughes to remain at Gateway, he will get the money even though he retired — with less than a week’s public notice — about 15 months after reaching the 2014 agreement with the Gateway Community & Technical College Foundation.

Hughes, whose base salary was $177,463 a year, had come under fire from Gateway’s board of directors as the school struggled with low enrollment and other challenges.

Even more disturbing, the presidents of Gateway college’s board of directors and the Kentucky Technical & Community College System didn’t know about the promised retention incentive until well after the foundation and Hughes had signed a contract guaranteeing it.

In fact, it appears few, beyond Hughes and some foundation board members, seemed to be aware of it until recently, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, which reported about the gift last week.

The General Assembly, KCTCS and the Council for Postsecondary Education must come together to sort out the best way to assure executive compensation at public educational institutions is fully accounted for, and is public information.

To show they’re serious, each of the institutions can start by posting full compensation packages for executives online in a prominent place. Although they are public, they are still much too hard to find.

It’s appropriate that this should emerge just in time for Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of doing public business in the open.

Without transparency, accountability is impossible. When public employees get significant pay and benefits from private foundations that act in secret without consulting public oversight boards, it is impossible to hold those employees fully accountable.

Gateway is a part of Kentucky’s Community & Technical College System. Hughes’ salary was public record. You can go to Kentucky Open Door to find the salary of almost any Kentucky state employee. Getting the full public-compensation packages for a university or college president is more challenging, but they are public records.

Things get much murkier when private foundations, separate from college or university oversight boards, start sweetening the pot, as the Gateway situation demonstrates.

KyCIR learned about Hughes’ incentive pay after filing an open-records request with KCTCS, which oversees the state network of community and technical colleges. And, according to KCTCS President Jay Box, he learned about it only when the Gateway Foundation submitted its 2015 audited financial report, more than a year after it signed the incentive contract.

Private foundations are an important support for public education institutions throughout Kentucky and the country, so this situation is far from unique.

University of Louisville trustees were alarmed to learn last year about $4.2 million in deferred compensation paid by the University of Louisville Foundation to President James Ramsey and a top aide. A cursory online search finds similar issues in Texas, Illinois, Virginia and Connecticut, to name a few.

States and institutions have taken different approaches to this challenge. Despite the problems at U of L and now at Gateway, Kentucky hasn’t addressed it, but it must now.

Let the sun shine.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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