Healy Hall tower at Georgetown University (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Private-college presidents saw their median total compensation climb 2.8 percent to $396,649 in 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported Sunday, with presidents at the top of the heap seeing much fatter paydays. Three dozen presidents of nearly 500 private colleges with budgets greater than $50 million each brought home more than $1 million in total pay, according to the analysis, which looked at federal tax data for the most recent year available.

Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who was president of the New School in New York until Dec. 2010, made more than $3 million that year. Just behind him were Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who made $2.3 million and David Pollick of Birmingham-Southern College, also no longer in the job, who made about $2.3 million in 2010 as well. Two Washington-area presidents were in the top 50: No. 23 was Steven Knapp of George Washington University, who the Chronicle says had total compensation of nearly $1.2 million in 2010, and No. 40 was John DeGioia of Georgetown University, who was paid just shy of $1 million.

The median increase of 2.8 percent may not be much higher than the median increase the year prior, of 2.2 percent. But while university presidents still get some perks that have started to be shunned in the corporate world—the Chronicle explores the issue of tax gross-ups awarded to these academic chiefs—their raises were far less than what was doled out in the corporate world the same year. Depending on which executive pay study you examine, CEOs saw increases of anywhere from 11 percent to 27 percent in 2010.

Those generous paydays were likely the result of low comparisons, of course—Corporate America was suffering through a deep recession in 2009, and CEO pay was dampened as a result. Still, it made me wonder: To what extent is university presidents’ pay held up to benchmarks, as public-company CEOs’ pay is through their proxies’ compensation discussion and analysis? How much are their annual increases decided based on yardsticks like endowment growth, budget health, or student and faculty satisfaction?

Jack Stripling, the author of this year’s report and a senior reporter at the Chronicle, said in an interview with me that when it comes to performance reviews, “quantitative measures are probably still the exception rather than the rule,” for university presidents. Faculty and others are “resistant to the blunt instruments of performance measurements,” as the nuances of a university president’s performance are far different than that of a public company CEO’s, where quarterly returns are driven by numbers evaluated daily by the stock market. 

Still, more and more universities are starting to use outside compensation consultants and offer evaluations such as the 360-degree reviews common in the corporate world. Stripling says this may be a result of more business leaders serving on university boards. “There’s talk of more robust evaluation,” he says, and, in particular, of finding “people who may not have an incentive to say something flattering” in the course of a review.

Some good may come from borrowing performance measurement tactics from the corporate world—leaders of all kinds need carrots and sticks, tailored to their jobs. Yet let’s hope the academic world doesn’t borrow the outsized 27-percent increases from the corporate world, too. 

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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