Public college presidents feel salary pinch

Associated Press / January 18, 2010

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NEW YORK - The recession has reached the executive suites of the nation’s public universities and colleges, halting a string of large annual pay increases for school presidents.

A survey released today by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed compensation packages of chief executives at public schools leveling off in 2008-2009, rising a relatively modest 2.3 percent. One in 10 saw their pay decline.

Presidential salaries at public universities and colleges have come under greater scrutiny as many schools raise tuition to offset steep declines in state funding.

The latest figures show that the economy and fears of a backlash over perceived high salaries are trumping - at least for now - the argument that public schools need to pay top dollar for top talent.

Over the previous six years, annual pay increases of 10 percent or more became the norm for many public school presidents. So while base salaries rose for two-thirds of top executives in the 2008-2009 survey of 185 public universities and community colleges, the dollars involved were significantly smaller.

The median compensation package for public school top executives in 2008-2009 was $436,111. Eleven public university presidents earned $700,000 or more, down from 15 the previous year.

The highest-paid president in this year’s public school survey is Gordon Gee of Ohio State University, whose pay is worth more than $1.5 million including salary, retirement, and deferred compensation. Rounding out the top five highest-paid public university presidents were Mark Emmert of the University of Washington ($905,004), Patrick Harker of the University of Delaware ($810,603), John Casteen of the University of Virginia ($797,048), and Francisco Cigarroa of the University of Texas system ($787,258).

The pay slowdown can be explained both by the recession and greater scrutiny at a time when public schools are under tremendous pressure, said Jeffrey Selingo, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

State tax support for higher education declined 1.1 percent nationwide in 2009-2010 - a drop that would have been much more severe without federal stimulus dollars, according to a separate report today by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University.

At private colleges and universities, the surge in pay has been pronounced. The Chronicle of Higher Education released figures in November showing one in four presidents of private colleges earns more than $500,000, and median pay rose 6.5 percent to $358,746 in the fiscal year that ended in 2008.

Suffolk University’s David J. Sargent ranked second among the top-paid presidents, receiving nearly $1.5 million in salary and benefits. The high compensation has sparked dissent among some faculty members and students.