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Survey: AU president earned more in 2011 than other private college leaders in D.C. area

American University President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin earned about $1.3 million in salary, benefits, deferred compensation and other pay in 2011, according to an annual survey published Sunday, making him the highest-paid leader of a private college or university in the Washington region.

The Chronicle of Higher Education survey, based on an analysis of tax returns, also found that George Washington University President Steven Knapp earned $1.1 million that year; Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia earned about $875,000; Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau earned about $759,000; Catholic University President John Garvey earned about $547,000; and Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz earned about $512,000.

Ribeau is retiring at the end of this month.

None of the university leaders in the District ranked among the top 10 earners nationally. The highest-paid president in the survey was Robert J. Zimmer of the University of Chicago, who received about $3.4 million, followed by Joseph E. Aoun of Northeastern University in Boston, who received about $3.1 million.

AU took issue with how the Chronicle calculated Kerwin’s total compensation. The previous year, Kerwin was reported to have earned $838,000. But he did not receive a pay raise of hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2011, according to the university.

Cornelius “Neil” M. Kerwin earned about $1.3 million in salary, benefits, deferred compensation and other pay in 2011, according to an annual survey published Sunday, making him the highest-paid leader of a private college or university in the Washington region. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

Instead, Kerwin received a payout of about $438,000 from a deferred compensation account that had grown over several years, according to Jeffrey A. Sine, chairman of the AU Board of Trustees, who sent a memo to the campus community to explain the president’s pay. Most of the payout had been reported in previous years.

“Dr. Kerwin’s annual compensation is more accurately portrayed as $891,709,” said Camille Lepre, a university spokeswoman. AU officials said that sum is in line with what leaders earn at peer institutions. Kerwin has led AU for eight years, taking over as acting president and then interim president in 2005, after the ouster of a predecessor. He was named president of the 12,800-student school in 2007.

The Chronicle, examining records for 500 private institutions with the largest endowments, found that 42 presidents received more than $1 million in total compensation in 2011, up from 36 the year before.

Some presidents were notable for not being in the $1 million-plus tier, including Harvard University’s Drew Gilpin Faust, who received about $900,000, ranking 54th in the country. Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman, who has since stepped down, received about $935,000, ranking 51st.

Presidential pay is often controversial. Many governing boards seek to hire presidents who can raise large amounts of money and grow the national profile of an institution — skills considered valuable in the job market.

But in recent years, as colleges and universities have faced cost-cutting pressure following the 2008 financial crisis, high compensation packages have drawn closer scrutiny.

“While it may look unseemly for a president to take a big paycheck during a financial downturn, the total pay for a college leader usually constitutes a relatively small percentage of a college’s overall budget,” said Jack Stripling, a Chronicle reporter who covers college leadership.

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