Ohio State University President Gordon Gee came within a few thousand dollars of earning $2 million in total compensation in fiscal year 2011, according to the latest analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Former Penn State President Graham Spanier, one of the highest-paid presidents in public higher education last year, chats with one of his athletic coaches.(Gene Puskar — Associated Press)

Texas A&M Chancellor Michael McKinney earned nearly as much, $1.97 million to Gee’s $1.99 million. Ousted Penn State President Graham Spanier earned $1.07 million.

Locally, the top-paid public chiefs were Charles Steger of Virginia Tech, at $738,603, and Alan Merten, the departing George Mason president, at $717,363. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan earned $665,000, but that pay is listed as “partial-year”.

The annual Chronicle survey shows a rapid rise in top executive compensation in the public universities; last year’s survey had just one president, Gee, earning seven figures, and his total package was just $1.3 million. Governing boards are probably mindful of such milestones, just as they are mindful of being the first (or second, or third) institution to charge, say, $40,000 in private tuition.

No other local public university presidents rank high on the national list; in fact, the top-paid Maryland university chiefs appear rather modestly paid. University System of Maryland Chancellor earned $490,000 in total compensation; Freeman Hrabowski of UMBC earned $420,400 — after 20 years of service, mind you — and University of Maryland President Wallace Loh earned $300,000.

Clearly, high pay corresponds to long service. Gee has told me he’s among the longest-serving presidents in academia, having led various institutions since 1981. Spanier started at Penn State in 1995.

Average presidential pay, however, is not rising at a particularly swift rate. The survey of 190 institutions and university systems found median total compensation rose 3 percent to $421,395.

The Chronicle said the California State University system was the epicenter of unrest over presidential pay last year:

“The outcry over presidential pay at Cal State reached a crescendo last July, when Elliot Hirshman, former provost of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, was named president of San Diego State University and given a $400,000 salary, which was 33 percent higher than that of his predecessor.”

Under pressure, the Cal State board adopted a presidential pay cap in January.

I should hasten to add that the top private university presidents earn significantly more than their public counterparts. The last Chronicle survey of those schools found three private presidents around Washington earning more than $1 million in 2009: $3.8 million went to William Brody at Johns Hopkins University and $1.5 million to Kevin Manning at Stevenson University, both in Baltimore. George Washington University President Steven Knapp earned $1.05 million in 2009.