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Rich rewards outlast Silber's reign

BU has paid him $7m since 2003

John Silber, who was one of the most handsomely paid university presidents in the nation, has received about $7 million in deferred compensation and other benefits from Boston University since he stepped down as chancellor in 2003.

Of that sum, $4.6 million came from deferred pay, money that BU had been setting aside for Silber every year since 1971 and investing for him, according to a document released by BU officials yesterday.

BU has reported that Silber deferred part of his salary in the past, but the full sum did not become clear until yesterday, when BU made public part of its 2005 tax filing, which the university will submit to the IRS Monday.

Deferred compensation is commonly used in executive pay in higher education and elsewhere and allows executives to put aside a portion of their pay to reduce their current tax liability.

Silber, who served as either president or chancellor for more than 30 years, received a total of $6,157,146 in fiscal 2005. In addition to the deferred pay, the sum includes:

$770,000 for a sabbatical leave to which he was entitled but did not take during his presidency. He earned one every five years, but didn't use four of them.

$305,000 in ''imputed" income for the BU-owned mansion in Brookline he has use of for life. Silber wasn't actually paid that sum, but for tax purposes, BU has to report the cash value of the housing benefit.

$490,000 in imputed income for life insurance policies BU took out for him.

$7,700 in regular employee benefits, primarily health insurance.

In fiscal 2004, Silber received $1,253,352, most of it from the $770,000 sabbatical benefit.

Silber has earned accolades for transforming BU from a modest commuter school into a nationally competitive, highly regarded research university. But he also became a figure feared and hated by some faculty, students, and alumni for his blunt opinions and tight hold on the reins of power. His pay and benefits were frequently controversial at a university where faculty salaries lagged behind those at peer institutions.

''The rest of us can't accrue our sabbaticals," said BU professor William Skocpol. ''But an emperor writes his own rules."

Alan Leventhal, chairman of BU's board of trustees, praised Silber's long service, but said the university has tightened its procedures for determining fair executive compensation. The university's new president, Robert A. Brown, is without some benefits Silber had, including the sabbatical pay and the right to stay in university housing after he retires.

''The board in those years thought this was an appropriate way to compensate" Silber, Leventhal said. ''He obviously did an extraordinary job in building the university over 34 years. We are in a new era today, and the board and the president have recognized that."

Silber released a statement yesterday pointing out that for his entire career as BU president and chancellor, he had deferred a substantial portion of his salary, from 10 percent, or $5,000, when he earned $55,000 as BU's new president in 1971, to $220,000 of his $770,000 salary in his last years in office.

The total of $3.3 million that was deferred earned $1.3 million in investment returns, to total $4.6 million. BU ''paid me nothing beyond my salary," Silber wrote. ''This is not a bonus."

Two specialists in higher education said yesterday that $4.6 million was the highest figure they'd ever seen for deferred compensation, but they called it not unreasonable as the accrual of more than three decades.

Robert Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education and a critic of skyrocketing pay for college presidents, said the problem was not the deferred pay, but that Silber's overall salary was too high. ''Divisive is the word I use," he said.

Silber remains a professor of philosophy and law at BU, but no longer draws a regular salary because he doesn't teach.

The deferred pay and sabbatical pay were funds set aside for Silber, and neither sum was drawn from BU's operating budget.

Silber is also set to receive an additional $770,000 for this fiscal year and next, representing the third and fourth sabbaticals he did not take. The imputed life insurance will continue for fiscal 2006.

After that, according to BU, Silber's only compensation will be employee benefits and the imputed income on his house.

BU has recently reviewed its executive compensation policies and made some changes, Leventhal said. The university has started using national data for comparison in setting BU pay, and the number of executives whose compensation will be reviewed by the board of trustees has expanded. Also, under rules set in 2004, members of the board's compensation committee cannot have a business relationship with the university, he said.

In addition to his $650,000 salary, Brown will earn an additional 20 percent each year for a supplemental retirement plan if he stays in office at least five years.

Bombardieri can be reached at

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