When I asked Raymond Burse to tell me the best moment he's had in the past two weeks, he said he wasn't sure he could pick just one. He's had that many.
"I'd say it was a Friday afternoon when I was walking over to the ice cream social we have on campus every week," he said. "A woman came up to me and said simply, 'I really want to thank you.' She had tears in her eyes. That was special."
The woman was one of 24 Kentucky State University employees who are benefiting from Burse's decision to give $90,000 of his salary to boost the hourly pay rate of the school's lowest-paid workers to $10.25 an hour. Some had been making as little as $7.25 an hour.
Burse's pay cut from $349,869 to $259,745 made national news and brought positive publicity to a school that can use some. Kentucky State has been properly criticized for its woeful graduation rate. In the past decade, its six-year rate has plummeted from 41 percent to 14 percent, by far the lowest in Kentucky and one of the nation's lowest.
But Burse wasn't trying to deflect attention from the school's academic problems. His goal was to provide a living wage for members of the Kentucky State family and enable them to pay their bills.
"I was thinking about doing this from the time the board starting talking to me about becoming interim president," he said. "We ask a lot of all our employees. I wanted to do right by them and help them be more economically secure."
The response has been "something of a shock," he said, from stories in national media to countless calls and emails to contributions sent by people who said they wanted to help, too.
A western Kentucky native, Burse returned to the president's office on July 1. He told the board he will serve no more than 12 months until his successor is chosen.
Burse, 63, grew up in Hopkinsville and excelled at Christian County High School as a student and as a running back in football and a hurdler in track. He has less than fond memories of competing against Paducah Tilghman, especially the 1967 football game.
"We were up 12-0 with a minute left in the third quarter, and they came back to beat us," he said. "I'll never forget it."
Burse graduated from Centre College and went on to Oxford College as a Rhodes Scholar. He earned a law degree at Harvard in 1978, and four years later was named president at Kentucky State, where he served from 1982 to 1989.
He then spent 17 years as a vice president and general counsel with General Electric before retiring in 2012.
Burse said he didn't give up 25 percent of his salary to generate a debate about whether others should follow suit. He explained, "I was in a (financial) position where I could do it, and that's not always the case."
Still, isn't it remarkable that his beneficent act stands out for its rarity?
Yes, I know that many people in the financial stratosphere make big philanthropic contributions. And Burse's giveback is not unprecedented. University of Kentucky's women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell recently pledged $100,000 a year over the next decade to the UK Athletic Department.
I hope these kindhearted acts don't escape notice by other handsomely paid executives.
Presidents at more than 50 public and private universities in the U.S. take home over $1 million a year. Those incomes are dwarfed by the pay of corporate CEOs, which has soared 900 percent in the past 30 years while the average U.S. worker's pay has gone up 10 percent. The average CEO at the top 350 U.S. firms last year made more than $15 million.
Burse, however, made it clear he's not trying to tell anyone else what to do with their money.
He doesn't need to. His uncommon generosity speaks for itself.
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