College Presidents’ Bow to Bad Publicity: Pay Hikes Slow as Tuitions Continue to Soar

Public-university presidents have been getting a lot of bad press recently: endowments are dwindling, state support is shrinking and tuitions, which have been rising faster than inflation for years, are jumping even more to close the gap. College and university presidents, who enjoy generous six-figure salaries and ample expenses and benefits, are being targeted for abuse by student protesters as a result.

And that student activism may have made a difference. College presidents got virtually no raises in 2008–09, and 15 of them actually reduced the overall size of their pay packages. That’s quite a change compared to the last five years of steady increases that amounted to a median boost of 37 percent. 

“Steadily rising pay packages of public-university chiefs riled parents, students, and politicians, especially as tuition increases also had been hefty from year to year,” says Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which annually ranks public universities by the size of their presidents’ total compensation package. The pay packages often include a range of benefits (free housing, car, retirement pay, and deferred compensation, performance bonuses and club memberships) as well as salary. The median package for the 185 public and community colleges surveyed was $436,111.

At the top of the list is E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, whose pay package of $1.575 million is the only one to top $1 million. (By contrast, 23 private college presidents negotiated packages worth more than $1 million in 2007–08, the most recent year available.) Right behind Gee was University of Washington’s Mark Emmert ($905,000); University of Delaware’s Patrick Harker ($810,600) and University of Virginia’s John Casteen III ($797,000).

 But Gee was also at the top of the list of presidents giving back some of their pay package. Gee donated $321,000 of his pay toward the $1 million he has personally pledged to donate toward scholarships. Other pay cutters included:
University of Louisville’s James Ramsey, who turned down $315,000 in bonus pay.
University of Florida’s J. Bernard Machen, who donated his $285,000 bonus to the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
University of Kentucky’s Lee T. Todd Jr., who declined a $168,000 performance bonus.
University of Connecticut’s Michael Hogan, who declined a scheduled 5 percent raise as well as a $100,000 bonus for the second year in a row.

Of course, it’s easier to give back when you are already among the most highly paid. The presidents of the University of Missouri’s system, University system of Maryland, University of Iowa, Iowa State, Arizona State and University of Northern Iowa, University of Colorado at Denver, Winona State University, University of Michigan system and Central Lakes College also volunteered to trim their compensation.

The Chronicle releases their annual survey of private college executives’ compensation packages in November of each year. In 2007–08, the median private-college president got a 6.5 percent raise, resulting in a median compensation package of $358,746. The presidents of the most prestigious group, the 419 major private research universities, got a median pay boost of 15.5 percent, bringing their median package to $627,750. When the next crop of numbers is collected in the fall, let’s hope they have the political smarts to trim those back.