UC Berkeley’s ‘income inequality’ critics earn in top 2%


Photo by Policy Network via Wikimedia Commons

REICH: Despite calls for income equality, the University of California Berkeley professor earned at least $263,592 in 2014. (Photo by Policy Network via Wikimedia Commons.)


Scholars from the University of California at Berkeley have played a pivotal role in making income inequality a major political issue. But while they decry the inequities of the American capitalist system, Berkeley professors are near the top of a very lopsided income distribution prevailing at the nation’s leading public university.

Among the most prominent of these scholars is Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Reich’s 2013 film, Inequality for All, is an indictment of a rigged U.S. economy that makes a select few richer while consigning the middle class to stagnation. A review of the film and Reich’s other work suggests that the economist and former Clinton-era Labor Secretary provided numerous talking points for Bernie Sanders’ high-profile – though ultimately unsuccessful – presidential campaign.

While Reich helped popularize the income inequality theme, much of the intellectual heavy lifting has been done by UC Berkeley economist Edward Saez and his colleagues at the university’s Center for Equitable Growth (CEG). Saez has been researching income inequality since 2003, when he co-authored a paper on the topic with Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century also played a key role in popularizing the income inequality issue. The pair continue to collaborate.

Since these Berkeley academics preaches, we wondered whether the university community also practices greater equality. To answer this question, we examined distributional equity at the university, relying on publicly available data.

Statistical Comparisons of Inequality

Social science researchers often measure income inequality with the Gini Coefficient – a calculated value that can range between zero and one. The higher the Gini Coefficient, the more unequal the country, municipality or community. If everyone in a population has exactly the same income, that group’s Gini Coefficient is zero.  By contrast, if one individual receives all of a community’s income (and everyone else receives nothing), the Gini Coefficient is 1.

According to World Bank statistics, the average country had a Gini Coefficient of around 0.36 in 2012, when data for 68 countries were available. In 2013, the coefficient for the U.S. was 0.4106 – roughly the same as it was under Bill Clinton in 1997. The country with the lowest reported Gini was Ukraine (at 0.2474) and the highest was Haiti (at 0.6079). Scandinavian countries are among the most equal (between 0.26 and 0.29), while Latin American nations dominate the high Gini countries (with several over 0.50).

Within the United States, the Census Bureau reports Gini coefficients for over 500 cities.  The latest data available are for 2014. The city of Berkeley’s Gini score of 0.5356 places it in the top 5% of U.S. cities for income inequality. In California, it ranks third of 133 – behind Davis (another city dominated by a UC campus) and Los Angeles. Internationally, city of Berkeley’s score is virtually identical to that of Colombia.

Public employee compensation data allows us to measure income inequality on campus. The State Controller’s Public Pay database contains salaries for all UC employees, indicating which campus each employee is on. The Gini coefficient for the 35,000 UC Berkeley employees in the data set is 0.6600 – higher than that of Haiti.

Getting Rich from Researching and Critiquing Inequality

Income inequality at Cal extends to the university’s inequality research arm, the Center for Equitable Growth mentioned earlier. According to 2014 data from Transparent California, Center Director Emmanuel Saez received total wages of $349,350. Its three advisory board members are also highly compensated Cal professors: David Card (making $336,367 in 2014), Gerard Roland ($304,608) and Alan Auerbach ($291,782). Aside from their high wages, all four professors are eligible for a defined-benefit pension equal to 2.5% times final average salary times number of years employed. It is also worth noting that all four are in the top 2% of UC Berkeley’s salary distribution, and that Saez is in the top 1%. It could be that an effective researcher has to know his or her subject: thus to the study the top 1%, we suppose one has to be in the top 1%.

Pricey Textbook

BOOK CLUB: Cal economics students are pounded by high-priced textbooks.

Robert Reich receives somewhat lower compensation than the four CEG economists, collecting $263,592 in pay during 2014. But Reich’s salary was likely not his only source of income in 2014. Reich makes himself available to give paid speeches through a number of speaking bureaus, charging a fee estimated at $40,000 per talk. He is also likely to receive some income from his books, movies and pensions from previous employers.

Reich is not the only senior academic who can avail himself of significant income aside from that provided by his university employer. Because teaching and publication demands on tenured professors are relatively modest, there’s time to earn extra income from consulting and writing textbooks. The latter can be surprisingly lucrative, since many college textbooks sell for over $200 per copy. Last September, the Cal bookstore offered an introductory economics textbook for $294. Lucrative opportunities to supplement one’s income with consulting fees and royalties are typically unavailable to a college’s administrative staff.

Highly Paid Coaches and Administrators

Aside from tenured professors, UC Berkeley also provides generous compensation for athletic coaches and administrators. The highest paid UC Berkeley employee in 2014 was Daniel Dykes who received $1,805,400 for coaching the California Golden Bears football team, which went 5-7 that year and did not make a bowl appearance. Dykes was followed closely by Jeff Tedford (at $1,800,000), the Bears’ former coach who was still on the payroll in 2014 despite having been relieved of his coaching responsibilities. The next five highest paid UC Berkeley employees were also coaches.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks was paid $532,226 in 2014, but a unique perk substantially boosted his effective compensation.

Dirks House

HE BUILT A WALL AND YOU PAID FOR IT: Chancellor Dirks’ residence with new $700k fence.

Like all UC Chancellors, Dirks is provided with a free residence. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, University House – now occupied by Dirks – contains 15,850 square feet of living and meeting space. Living on campus has not been an unalloyed benefit for Chancellor Dirks, however. The home has been attacked on numerous occasions by student activists. In response, the university recently completed a metal fence around the home at a cost of $699,000 – two and a half times over budget.

Dirks’ cash compensation was slightly lower than that of former UC President Mark Yudof, who co-instructed one class at Cal’s Law School in 2014, receiving $546,057 for his time. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Yudof benefited from a UC policy that allows high-ranking administrators to receive a year of pay if they are preparing to teach again.” After stepping down as president, Yudof took a one-year sabbatical, co-taught one class in Fall 2014 and another in Spring 2015, and then retired.

Tenured faculty and administrators at Cal have also been shielded from harsh discipline, even when they engage in sexual harassment. According to a recent report in the San Jose Mercury News:

Astronomer Geoff Marcy received a warning last year despite the university’s finding that he had serially harassed students over nearly a decade. Former law school dean Sujit Choudhry received a 10 percent pay cut but was initially allowed to keep his position after he was found to have sexually harassed his executive assistant. And former Vice Chancellor Graham Fleming — who stepped down last April amid allegations he had sexually harassed a staff member — quickly landed an administrative job as ambassador for UC Berkeley’s new Global Campus, a satellite campus in Richmond.

The three Cal employees cited received generous compensation in 2014. Marcy collected $217,861; Choudhry made $472,917 and Fleming received $404,625. More recently, Berkeley has taken stronger disciplinary measures in response to media attention and pressure from UC’s system President Janet Napolitano. Fleming was fired and Choudhry resigned in March.

Life for the Other 99%

High compensation for tenured faculty does not necessarily come with a heavy teaching workload. Instead, most of the teaching burden appears to fall on junior faculty and teaching assistants.

Introductory classes at UC Berkeley often have several hundred students. Although a faculty member gives the lectures and designs the syllabus, students functioning as teaching assistants, readers and graders handle most live interaction with course participants, review their homework and score their exams. Students fulfilling these roles may be in a graduate program, but are often juniors or seniors.

In Fall 2013, Cal’s Intro to Computer Science – CS 61A – had 1,098 registered students, exceeding the capacity of the lecture hall. The assistant professor conducting the course, John DeNero, recorded lecture videos for those who could not fit into the room. He told the student newspaper: “Almost all of the learning in computer science courses happens in the lab and when they’re working on projects. So if you don’t fit in the room, you can definitely still participate in all the important parts of the course.” Students taking the class had access to 19 teaching assistants and 15 readers. DeNero was paid $46,643 in 2014 – likely exceeding the amounts paid to the enormous assistant and reading staff who now receive around $14 per hour. Thus, one of the university’s most important services – orienting new students to the fast-growing field of computer science – was delivered by poorly paid staff, without any input from its highly compensated senior faculty.

Although the City of Berkeley has a higher minimum wage than the rest of the state, Cal is exempt from this municipal minimum. In late 2014, The East Bay Express reported that the university was paying hundreds of student workers less than the $10 per hour city minimum.  More recently, the university implemented a UC-wide Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan under which the minimum wage rose to $13 per hour in October 2015 with subsequent increases to $14 per hour in October 2016 and $15 per hour in October 2017. It should be noted that, unlike other minimum wage requirements, UC’s minimums apply only to employees working more than 20 hours per week, so it is possible that some student workers will remain below the City of Berkeley minimum, currently set at $12.53.

It is difficult to assess how little of the teaching burden falls on the shoulders of tenured faculty.  The University of California’s Annual Accountability Report (covering all 10 UC campuses) indicates that most instruction is provided by “full-time permanent faculty.” This designation includes assistant and associate professors who have yet to obtain tenure. Further, the university employs a misleading metric for reporting relative instructional burdens between full-time permanent faculty, lecturers, visitors, adjuncts and others. Teaching loads are shown in “student credit hours (SCH),” which is the number of students enrolled in a given course times the number of credits earned from that course. If a permanent faculty member gives the lectures for a 4-credit course attended by 1000 students, 4000 SCH are added to the full-time permanent faculty total even though most instructional activities in the course are performed by juniors, seniors and graduate students.

Relatively low-paid and heavily worked staff also keep many of Cal’s core functions running. Administrative staff faced a round of layoffs in 2011 and are now undergoing a further workforce reduction despite increasing enrollment numbers. Meanwhile, unrepresented staff (those not unionized) have seen minimal salary growth in recent years. Although administrative tasks – such as managing financial aid applications, administering grants applications and maintaining university software platforms – may seem less glamorous than research, individuals performing these functions often work much harder than tenured faculty while earning far less.


The University of California at Berkeley has a great reputation, and the school continues to earn its high standing with a mixture of world-class scholars, outstanding students and (at least some) great facilities.

To attract excellent academics and administrators, the university must offer competitive compensation packages. In some cases, these packages will draw truly outstanding people who go on to do excellent work for the university. In other instances, these packages amount to sinecures enabling high-status individuals to receive compensation disproportionate to their contributions.

In this respect, Cal is no different from a large, publicly held corporation. Companies offer big salaries to CEOs and other high-level professionals, sometimes getting their money’s worth and other times not. Just as it isn’t reasonable to expect a tenured professor or senior administrator to be paid in line with entry-level employees, we shouldn’t expect senior university administrators and tenured professors to be paid the same as work-study students.

While it is true that the compensation ratios between the highest- and lowest-paid employees are greater at many large corporations than at universities, there is an offsetting consideration. A very large portion of compensation at UC Berkeley and other public universities is paid by federal and state taxpayers through grants and financial aid. This is not the case for private companies – at least those that don’t sell to the government.

The hefty salaries and generous pensions awarded to Berkeley administrators, professors and coaches are funded by taxpayers – most of whom earn far less than these academic luminaries. So if UC Berkeley economists are really opposed to income inequality and are concerned about low-paid workers, they might consider sharing some of their compensation with the teaching assistants, graders, readers and administrative staff at the bottom of Cal’s income distribution.

We’re not saying income inequality is a bad thing; we’re not saying that Reich, Saez and other Berkeley professors should make less than they do, or that student teachers ought to make much, much more. In fact, there are reasonable arguments that income inequality is not only inevitable and even ethical, but that it’s also a generally positive feature of advanced economies.

We are saying there’s something unusual in the Berkeley phenomenon – the high-profile role of high-income earners in criticizing income inequality.

Study author Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions and a policy analyst with the California Policy Center. Joffe founded Public Sector Credit Solutions in 2011 to educate policymakers, investors and citizens about government credit risk. PSCS research has been published by the California State Treasurer’s Office, the Mercatus Center and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute among others. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a senior director at Moody’s Analytics. He earned his MBA from New York University and his MPA from San Francisco State University.

The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.


4 replies
  1. Marcia Fritz
    Marcia Fritz says:

    Wow. Talk about calling the kettle black!

    The compensation structure at UC appears to be hopelessly rigged and extremely unfair–particularly the Yudof scam. When top officials use loopholes to line their pockets, it sets the tone for everyone else to do likewise. Students should wake up.


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