The marquee dollar figure on the Arizona Board of Regents’ agenda this week is $988,000.

That’s the total annual compensation that Dr. Robert Robbins, the UA’s new president, is set to receive, including $188,000 in pension payments, a housing allowance and a vehicle allowance. If the contract is approved Friday as expected, he’ll be by far the best-paid university president in Arizona history.

But an equally telling figure is $100. That’s the new annual fee that the regents would impose on all new UA undergraduates to help pay for intercollegiate sports. If they do so, that will pay for stadium renovations, among other things, and dispense forever with the fiction that the university’s athletic programs pay for themselves.

The athletic fee is just one of several fees the regents will consider raising Thursday for new students, under a proposal from the UA.

  • The health and recreation fee would go up by $125, or 42 percent, to $425.
  • The information technology/library fee would go up by $55, or 11 percent, to $535.
  • The student services fee would go up by $70, or 88 percent, to $150.

For many students, the situation is infuriating. The obvious question is: Why can’t they pay the president and all the other administrators and coaches less, and that way help keep student fees down?

It’s a good question, but maybe that’s looking at the situation the wrong way around.

Robbins looks so far like a highly qualified and promising president. Yes, he comes from a nontraditional background, as a heart surgeon and former CEO of Texas Medical Center. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ann Weaver Hart was a university president before coming here, and she disappointed.

If Robbins succeeds, he will bring in more and bigger donations, he’ll convince the Legislature to prop up state funding, and that will help keep student costs down.

Tuition is set to rise by only 1 percent for new students next year, but to get the real picture you need to understand tuition is no longer the only cost to keep an eye on. Beyond the fees for all students I just listed, there are program fees for many academic specialties that may have an “increased cost of delivery,” to use the phrase in university materials.

If you’re going to major in neuroscience, for example, you’ll pay an additional $400 fee per semester. Those going for a bachelor’s degree in law pay $900 more per semester. All Honors College students pay an extra $250. For graduate and technical students, the fees and additional tuition tend to be much higher.

Those things bother students, Michael Finnegan, the president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, told me.

If you asked students how much fees should be, he said, “The student answer would be zero dollars and zero cents every year.”

Obviously, that’s not realistic in a state with a penny-pinching Legislature. Finnegan said the fact that Arizona State University has a $150-per-student annual fee for athletics means the UA would inevitably impose such a fee sometime anyway.

“The athletics fee is irrelevant to the students’ main goal on campus, which is to get an education,” he said. “When it came to the politics of the situation, we tried to lower the fee as much as possible and help grad students out.”

Under the existing proposal, grad students would be asked to pay $50 per year toward athletics, but could opt out.

A successful UA president would keep tuition, fees and other cost increases down to the bare minimum. He would help bring in grants and donations, and convince the Legislature not to keep cutting state funding.

That’s something Robbins may succeed in doing in the long run. And he is expected to negotiate additional pay-for-performance terms to his contract before the end of the year. That will likely put his total compensation over $1 million per year.

But before he has had a chance to prove himself, he’s being paid a record salary, thanks in part to an extra $200,000-per-year thrown in by donors to the UA Foundation. The foundation started considering raising extra money for presidents during Hart’s term and is now planning on paying these extra salaries to UA presidents in perpetuity.

It’s a good thing — if the presidents do a good job.

Much has been made of the fact that Robbins will be taking a pay cut in order to become UA president — he made more than $1.2 million at Texas Medical Center. But he said during meetings with faculty here that doesn’t matter much to him.

“I’ve never been really motivated by money,” he said in March. “I’m motivated by the vision and passion I have to return to academia.”

He needs to understand, though, that students are motivated by money — specifically by minimizing their costs so they won’t be entering the work force buried in debt.

If Robbins is able to help them do that, then his high salary will have been well worth it. It’s just too bad we have to spend all that money to find out if he really can do the job.

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