A group of high school seniors tours St. Mary's College of Maryland on Nov. 1, 2013. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It was a novel idea that bubbled up at an unusual public college. A group of professors at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, outraged about a trend of rising presidential pay in higher education, wanted to cap the salary of their school’s president at a level no more than 10 times what the college’s least-paid employees make.

The critics drafted a proposal that would have set a minimum salary of about $30,000 a year for employees such as housekeepers and groundskeepers. The maximum for the president would have been approximately $300,000, about $25,000 less than what the college now pays its interim chief.

The idea reflects a populist revolt within higher education at presidential salaries that often rise faster than inflation while lower-paid employees struggle to make what is considered a “living wage.” Many presidents earn more than $500,000 a year in salary and benefits, and some earn more than $1 million — packages that are drawing fresh scrutiny at schools such as St. Mary’s that have been forced to cut spending as budgets have tightened in recent years.

“We’re not asking for anything really radical here,” said Sandy Ganzell, an associate professor of mathematics who supported the plan. “Some are suggesting that the president’s salary should be market-driven. I see market forces as being the problem, not the solution.”

Ganzell said he and others who worked on the proposal knew of no other colleges that had such a formula. But that, he said, is part of their pitch. “We’re at a point where it seems like we need a novel idea,” Ganzell said.

It might be that the idea’s time hasn’t yet arrived. The St. Mary’s Faculty Senate decided to block the proposal Thursday night in a closely split vote that Ganzell said came after “heated discussion.” Interim President Ian Newbould said the group considered and rejected a motion to forward the proposal to a larger faculty meeting for debate in early March. Even if the faculty had endorsed the idea, the board of trustees would not have been required to follow its recommendation.

Newbould said it was “not clear at all” how much support the proposal had at St. Mary’s. “It’s an ideological thing more than a realistic thing,” Newbould said. He said the plan seemed timed to influence a search under way for a new president of the 1,859-student college. Some on the faculty were skeptical of the idea, saying it could hinder the presidential search.

Newbould took over in August after the previous president, Joseph R. Urgo, left amid an uproar over a sharp enrollment decline that pinched revenue and forced the college to cut costs. Newbould is paid at the same rate as Urgo — about $325,000 a year, officials said.

Gail Harmon, president of the St. Mary’s board of trustees, could not be reached Thursday for comment on the pay scale proposal. Alan Dillingham, an economics professor who heads the Faculty Senate, also could not be reached.

St. Mary’s describes itself as a public honors college, with a focus on liberal arts and small class sizes and a striking campus on the waterfront in Southern Maryland. Its tuition and fees, $14,865 for Maryland residents, not counting room and board, are on the high end among public institutions but are much lower than what private liberal arts colleges charge.

Some in higher education say presidential salaries are one of many factors that drive up college costs, which in turn drive up tuition.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that 75 public college or university leaders had earned at least $500,000 in total compensation in fiscal 2012. Urgo was not included in the survey of 214 chiefs. The highest-paid public university leader from Maryland in the survey was William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, whose total pay was $490,000.

Among private college presidents, in a separate Chronicle survey based on 2011 data, 42 earned total compensation of at least $1 million and 180 at least $500,000.

The St. Mary’s proposal follows a decade of activism by students, faculty and others for living wages for the college’s lower-paid staff.

A Web site for advocates says that in the 2012-13 school year, the minimum staff salary was about $24,500. The proposal called for a new minimum to be nearly $30,000, using a formula tied to federal poverty guidelines. Minimum pay for assistant, associate and full professors also would have risen. But it would have been cut for a handful of top administrators.

The proposal noted that other colleges provide presidents with extensive non-salary benefits. To account for that, the drafters said, total compensation for a St. Mary’s president — including housing and vehicle benefits and deferred pay -- should be capped at 11 times what the lowest-paid employees earn.

Some professors say faculty and staff campuswide are overdue for solid raises after a period of budget austerity. At age 42, Ganzell said his salary is not much more than $65,000. Ben Click, 55, a professor who chairs the English department, said he earns a base salary of less than $81,000. But Click and Ganzell said what motivated them to support the pay scale is the plight of college employees who earn far less than they do.

“St. Mary’s has always tried to be a different kind of school that has a sense of social responsibility, a sense of community, and of social justice,” Click said.