Why Four Public University Presidents Earned More Than $1M Last Year

 @AlexCKaufman
on May 12 2013 6:18 PM
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At least four public university presidents were paid more than $1 million each during the 2011-12 fiscal year.

The fortunate foursome were Jay Gogue of Auburn University, Alan G. Merten of George Mason University, E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University and Graham Spanier of Pennsylvania State University. Of course, Spanier resigned in disgrace after the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal.

These four were the highest-paid public college presidents during the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to a new report by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The 212 presidents at the 191 public research institutions surveyed this year earned median total compensation of $441,392, a 4.7 percent boost since the Chronicle’s last survey. Median base salaries were hiked slightly, inching up 2 percent to $373,800.

Why the increase?

“If you have a critical mass of presidents who are finally eligible to touch their deferred-compensation pay, then it creates these spikes,” Jack Stripling, a senior reporter at the Chronicle, told the International Business Times. “But the spikes are happening more often and the spikes are bigger.”

The pay scale is rising for public-university presidents, whose compensation packages have traditionally lagged those of their private-institution counterparts -- something that, despite the narrowing gap, Stripling does not think will change.

“Public-university presidents, with very few exceptions, accept that they are going to make less money,” Stripling, who covers university leadership, said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s the nature of the business -- the underlying notion that they are taxpayer-supported institutions creates a political and cultural aversion to the types of pay levels that we see at private institutions that really only answer to themselves.”

But things began to change in 2007, when Ohio State poached Gee from Vanderbilt University, a member of the so-called Magnolia League of elite Southern schools considered comparable to Ivy League institutions.

His base salary of $775,000 that year quickly crossed the $1 million mark in the 2007-08 fiscal year, Stripling said. It was the first time a public-university president had earned seven figures.

“It was absolutely a game-changer,” Stripling said. “It made more palatable within public high education a level of pay that up until that point had been reserved for the private university.”

Indeed, it has made the public sphere more attractive to private schools’ top teaching talent.

For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill named the interim chief at Dartmouth College, Carol L. Folt, its new president last month.

“She’s not part of our calculation yet,” Stripling said, “but she brings with her the reflected glory of an Ivy League institution.”

But it was disgrace, not distinction, that merited the largest compensation in this year’s survey.

Spanier, the 15-year president of Penn State, resigned in November 2011 under intense public pressure in the aftermath of a child-sex scandal that rocked the university and made international headlines for months. Sandusky, the 69-year-old former assistant coach of the college’s football team, was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys, all of whom were from disadvantaged homes. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

The departing president was paid $2.5 million in severance.

Why didn’t Spanier just get fired, so money could have been saved?

“Firing anyone for probable cause in the academy is a very rare event,” Stripling said. “There’s typically a very high legal bar ... And you can pretty well count on being sued by the president if you do it.”

Lisa Powers, a Penn State representative, declined to comment to IBTimes about whether the university considering firing Spanier or whether a potential lawsuit factored into the payout.

“We really wouldn’t speculate on this point on anything that may or could have occurred,” she said.

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