College president gives up $90K so workers can get raise

Raymond Burse thinks low-paid workers at Kentucky State University deserve a raise, and he's personally willing to give up more than $90,000 to make sure they get one.

"It was something I was in a position to do, and it was something I wanted to do," Burse said.

Burse is interim president of the school, a public land-grand institution with 2,500 students in Frankfort, Kentucky. He recently returned to lead the university after having previously headed it from 1982 to 1989. One condition Burse, 63, set in coming back: "I told the board I was billing to work for less provided that what I gave up would raise employees from $7.25 an hour to $10.10."

The board approved unanimously.

As a result, Burse accepted an annual salary of just under $260,000, rather than the roughly $350,000 KSU had initially proposed. The $90,000 originally earmarked for his compensation package is instead being used to boost the pay of 24 workers, mostly maintenance and clerical workers, at the school, some of whom earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

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Kentucky State University interim president Raymond Burse
Kentucky State University
After his initial stint at KSU, Burse, a Harvard Law School graduate, later joined General Electric (GE). Over a 17 year career at the conglomerate, he rose to corporate officer and general counsel of its appliances and lighting division. He retired from the company in 2012.

Burse is reluctant to be drawn into the fractious national debate over whether Congress should raise the federal minimum wage. Although more than a dozen states around the U.S. have moved to raise their minimum wage, a bill to boost the baseline level of pay in Kentucky is blocked in the state's legislature.

Instead, he describes his decision as one he expects to benefit KSU workers and the university alike. But Burse is clear that a pay raise to $10.10 an hour, which amounts to just over $21,000 a year, is the minimum lower-paid workers at the school deserve.

"You can live [on $7.25 an hour], but it's hard living, tough living," he said. "It forces individuals to make a choice between some necessities of life and the things they want to do. We want our employees to have a better life. In return, I expect them to make a commitment to the institution and to help us with what we need to do to move education forward at KSU."

Burse expresses surprise at the considerable public attention his move to forgo a chunk of his salary has garnered. "I didn't do this for PR," he said, noting that he has received email messages from around the world. "What I did, I did for the employees of Kentucky State University."

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    Alain Sherter is an award-winning business journalist who has written for The Deal, MarketWatch and Thomson Financial Media.

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