UC Davis officials are making an expensive investment toward improving the college's image.
The university hired Luanne Lawrence, formerly of the University of South Carolina, as associate chancellor for strategic communications earlier this year.
She will make an annual salary of $260,000, more than any other campus communications chief in the University of California system, according to a survey by The Sacramento Bee. As part of her benefits package, she is eligible for 90 days of temporary housing and to participate in the university system's low-interest home loan program, UC Davis officials said.
Her job title is new, so comparisons to her predecessors at UC Davis are inexact. But she will make more than others before her who did a similar job.
Mitchel Benson earned $182,000 in 2011 as UC Davis' associate vice chancellor for university communications. Barry Shiller, who was interim executive director for strategic communications, earned $203,000 in 2012. Beverly Sandeen made $218,000 in 2010 as vice chancellor for university relations, a broad position that no longer exists.
Reacting to controversy, UC officials adopted pay reforms in 2006 that expanded the number of senior managers whose salaries require approval by the Board of Regents. But Lawrence's job does not meet the criteria. Her hiring and salary were instead reviewed and approved by UC President Mark Yudof, campus officials said.
Lawrence steps into her role as the university tries to put a public relations nightmare behind it: the 2011 incident in which campus police officers used pepper spray against students during a protest largely focused on tuition hikes.
UC Davis also wants to grow enrollment, increase research funding and maintain its high academic ranking even as the state spends less on higher education. Lawrence said a key part of her job will be convincing potential students and donors that the university is up to the challenge.
As a result, Lawrence said, the university's communications department will expand. She hasn't determined by how much yet.
"If you are going to increase enrollment by 5,000 students, you need a strong communications presence," Lawrence said, referring to the possibility of growth that Chancellor Linda Katehi outlined in her "2020 Initiative" plan.
Lawrence, who started in May, oversees the campus's news services, publications department, campus Internet home pages, social media websites and marketing units. Those offices have a budget of roughly $3 million and 27 full-time employees, according to her official job description.
The new position is vital to "help raise the public profile and visibility of UC Davis," said Susan Gilbert, the university's associate vice chancellor for human resources.
Some aren't convinced Lawrence's new position is necessary at least not at her salary level.
"Perhaps marketing and branding in the university have become that important, but I'd have to see solid evidence of that before agreeing that this position is more essential than, say, three new faculty members," said Richard Evans, a UC Davis horticulture researcher.
While he agrees that improving the university's image would be nice, "it does not rise to the level of an associate chancellor to make that happen."
Lawrence's hiring comes after years of belt tightening and budget cuts across the UC system, though the system's financial outlook has brightened some due to recent voter approval of a statewide tax increase largely used to fund education.
UC Davis officials said they have kept administrative costs and salaries in check as state funding has fallen in recent years.
Lawrence pointed to university figures showing that the number of top managers paid through general fund and tuition support fell by 24 percent from 2008 to 2012, while the number of faculty paid through those means dropped only slightly. The university expects to hire up to 110 new faculty this academic year, she said.
"When I look at the numbers, I see decreases in administration and impressive, even robust growth in the academic and instructional side of UC Davis," Lawrence said.
Administrator pay has been a touchy subject across the UC system during the past few years as student tuition has sharply increased. The UC Board of Regents recently approved the hiring of a new president, Janet Napolitano, at a salary of $570,000 about $21,000 less than the departing president.
Last year, pay for UC top managers and executives increased by 7 percent from 2011, higher than the 4 percent increase among academic personnel, according to figures released last week by the system.
Most top communications officials at other UC campuses work at the associate vice chancellor level, which is below the associate chancellor rank that Lawrence holds.
Other UC campuses paid those officials an average of roughly $210,000 last year; current salaries range from $134,000 at UC Merced to $258,000 at UC Berkeley.
By policy, UC regents approve the salaries of top managers. But that policy was modified in November and fewer salaries are coming to the board for approval.
Since November, only 27 of the most senior positions in the UC system and senior managers who will make more than $291,000 annually require approval from the regents, said UC spokesman Steve Montiel.
Montiel said the changes "are consistent with practices of other public higher education institutions" and with principles laid out by a recent system task force on compensation.
Even before that change, Lawrence's position likely wouldn't have needed regent approval because she is not classified as senior management, a designation that applies to nine administrators at the UC Davis campus and another seven at the UC Davis Medical Center, Gilbert said.
UC Davis has one other associate chancellor, Karl Engelbach, a senior adviser to the chancellor who earned about $210,000 in 2012.
Lawrence is one of about a dozen administrators at the dean level or above at UC Davis who earn at least $260,000, according to state records. That does not include doctors and administrators in the UC Davis Health System.
Lawrence said her new salary is not much higher than what she earned at the University of South Carolina. She made about $237,000 in that position in 2012, according to state records.
Lawrence previously ran communications and marketing at Oregon State University, the University of Maine, the University of Baltimore and Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania.
"I was offered a salary and I took it," Lawrence said. "It was such a great opportunity."
Search for state worker salaries: http://www.sacbee.com/statepay/
Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137. Follow him on Twitter @PhillipHReese.