Former GMU president Alan Merten. (Evan Cantwell)

As he left the presidency of George Mason University last year, Alan G. Merten earned nearly $1.2 million in retirement benefits, making him one of the nation’s top-paid public university leaders, according to a new survey.

Merten’s total 2012 compensation for his 16th and final year as GMU president was $1.87 million, the survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education found. That placed him fourth among 214 public college and university presidents.

Merten’s base annual salary was $427,369, which put him more in the middle of the pack on that measure. He also earned a $150,000 bonus and about $99,000 in deferred pay.

The survey data, published Sunday, showed that retirements — or abrupt departures -- are sometimes a lucrative transition point for university presidents.

Atop the Chronicle’s list was Graham B. Spanier, who was fired as president of Penn State University in November 2011 under the cloud of a child-sex-abuse scandal involving that school’s football program. Spanier’s total compensation for fiscal 2012 was $2.9 million, of which about $2.5 million was deferred and severance pay.

Here is compensation data for other public higher education leaders in Virginia and Maryland who were among the top 100 nationally:

**Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech president since January 2000, received about $858,000, ranking 7th;

**Teresa A. Sullivan, University of Virginia president since August 2010, received about $732,000, ranking 15th;

**Michael Rao, Virginia Commonwealth University president since July 2009, received about $686,000, ranking 22nd;

**William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland since August 2002, received $490,000, ranking 80th;

**Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County since May 1992, received about $487,000, ranking 82nd;

**Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park since November 2010, received about $483,000, ranking 83rd; and

**John R. Broderick, president of Old Dominion University since June 2008, received about $473,000, ranking 87th.