More private college presidents join the millionaires’ club

December 16, 2013

(Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Private colleges are minting more millionaire presidents than ever.

On Sunday evening, the Chronicle of Higher Education released its annual analysis of what the men and women running this country's private universities get paid. While the median base salary rose just 0.4 percent and total compensation ticked up 3.2 percent (from $397,860 in 2010 to $410,523 in 2011), the number of private college presidents earning more than $1 million in total compensation swelled nearly 17 percent, from 36 presidents in 2010 to 42 in 2011.

The rising compensation comes at a time when the demands of the job have grown. College presidents are under increasing pressure to modernize as big changes in online learning, demographics and global education combine with the economic headwinds of recent years. Small and mid-sized private colleges in particular have been hit by declining enrollments, budget shortfalls and difficult decisions about job cuts.

Sitting atop the list, which examines the U.S. private institutions with the 500 largest endowments, is Robert Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago. In 2011 he received compensation of $3.4 million, which included base pay of roughly $918,000 and a large deferred compensation payout. "Trustees want to retain talent, so they load up presidential contracts with money that is only paid out years into a president's tenure," Jack Stripling, a senior reporter who covers college leadership for the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in an email. The Chronicle notes that because of how the IRS calculates deferred compensation, the figures its list uses (as is the case with Mr. Zimmer and other top earners) may include money that has previously been counted.

Rounding out the top five are Joseph Aoun at Northeastern University ($3.1 million), Dennis Murray at Marist College ($2.7 million), Lee Bollinger at Columbia University ($2.3 million) and Lawrence Bacow at Tufts University ($2.2 million). Bacow retired from Tufts in 2011.

Compared with the size of the University of Chicago's budget, however, Mr. Zimmer's pay is below the median. He earned $1,113 for every $1 million of expenses at the school, which has a budget of $3 billion, according to the Chronicle. By that measure, Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust is also a bargain. Her nearly $900,000 in 2011 total compensation means she earned just $230 for each $1 million of Harvard's $3.9 billion budget. The median ratio for private college presidents was $5,466 for every $1 million in expenses.

The Chronicle included this ratio in the recent study to help give some sense of the size and complexity of each president's job. "Looking at pay relative to budget provides useful context," Stripling said. "In the grand scheme of a given college's budget, $1 million for the president may not amount to much. But those types of numbers still tend to set people off, which is a testament to the symbolic power of executive pay."

No Washington D.C-area private college presidents were among the 1o highest paid. But Cornelius Kerwin, president of American University (at No. 17, he earned $1.3 million in 2011, the Chronicle reports), Ronald Daniels of Johns Hopkins University (No. 30, $1.2 million) and George Washington University's Steven Knapp (No. 37, $1.1 million) each cracked the $1 million club. Georgetown University's John DeGioia, ranked 60th, made $875,317.

While only four public-college presidents earn more than $1 million annually, their median total compensation is roughly similar. The Chronicle reported earlier this year that median pay for public university chiefs was $441,392.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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