The vast majority of Washington State’s highest-paid state employees worked in state colleges and universities and most went to work wearing tweed and oxfords, not sweatshirts and athletic shoes, according to salary data released by the Office of Financial Management.

Though media reports following the publication of the OFM 2011 Annual Salary Report focused on stratospheric salaries negotiated by a quintet of NCAA coaches atop the state payroll, those celebrity coaches are only the tip of the symbolic fiscal iceberg. Of the top 100 highest-paid earners on the state payroll, 99 came from within the state-run higher education system, but only 10 were involved in college athletics.

The only state employee in the top 100 not working in higher education is State Investment Board Chief Investment Officer Gary Bruebaker, at number 52 on the list for pay totaling $312,000 in 2011.

A recent war of letters between Gov. Christine Gregoire and Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard over pay raises to professors drew some attention to higher education payrolls at a time when state-run colleges and universities are instituting tuition increases to bridge growing budget gaps. Though WWU’s pay increases are receiving warranted attention, the OFM report may open scrutiny to the payrolls throughout the state’s higher education establishment.

As a group, those working in all areas of higher education (including athletics) comprised 89 percent of the 3,051 state employees who earned more than $120,000 for 2011. Furthermore, while many lower-earning state workers saw their pay cut, the salaries of those working in higher education generally remained steady or rose.

In relation, the annual mean wage in Washington State for 2011 was $50,280, according to figures published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

No school looms larger on the government ledger than the University of Washington, an institution that has far and away amassed the largest concentration of the state’s highest earners.

Of 3,051 individuals earning more than $120,000 in the OFM report, 73 percent (2,229 employees) worked at the UW dwarfing the next highest concentration of Washington State University’s 326 employees.

Bow down to Washington, indeed.

(The large number of professors and administrators working within the UW Medicine network and in the university’s world-renowned medical school accounts in some part for the UW’s dominance of the list.)

WWU—the subject of Gregoire’s scrutiny—has only 18 employees on the list of high flyers.

At a time when tuitions continue to sharply rise at state-run colleges, universities, and technical schools, the $6.7 million in total salaries for higher education—53 percent of the state payroll in 2011—is not an elephant sitting quietly in the corner, but one that defiantly dances flamenco on the table at budget negotiations.

Is there a political will to look more closely higher ed salaries? Perhaps, if the solution to curbing the potential for excess inflation has anything to do with addressing tenure. Republican candidate for governor Rob McKenna has this to say on his campaign website:

For new hires, we should move from a tenure system to a long-term contract system. Instead of guaranteeing lifetime tenure, give new professors a rolling five year contract that can be renewed. Such a system would protect academic freedom without tying universities down to lifetime tenure.