Study: 30 private college presidents made more than $1 million

A study shows that high-end compensation for private college presidents is increasing. In 2004, no presidents made $1 million or more. In 2008, 30 did.

Parents struggling with high tuition bills might be fuming when they look at the list of the top-paid presidents of private colleges and universities.

The annual analysis of tax records by the Chronicle of Higher Education found 30 top executives – out of the 448 institutions the Chronicle surveyed – received a total compensation of more than $1 million in 2008. More than 20 percent had a compensation package that exceeded $600,000.

And it’s a trend that seems to be heading upward: Just four years earlier, not a single college president in the Chronicle’s survey had received more than $1 million.

Still, context matters, and many of the top earners have special circumstances.

Take Bernard Lander, a Jewish rabbi who founded Touro College in New York in 1970. He topped the list with a total compensation of nearly $4.8 million, but nearly all of that was due to trustees’ decision to award him a large package of retroactive pay and retirement benefits to make up for years of underpayment. Mr. Lander actually died in February.

Other presidents got large retirement settlements or appeared to make more due to unusual circumstances: One cashed out a life-insurance policy and bought a private policy; another was reimbursed for renovations to the president’s house.

But pay is clearly headed upwards. While it’s impossible to compare perfectly to previous years, since the IRS changed its reporting rules (the data now covers compensation over the fiscal, rather than the calendar, year), in the last Chronicle survey 23 presidents were over the $1 million mark.

And relatively high compensation should be expected, says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents presidents and chancellors at American colleges and universities. “Running a major college or university is a 24/7, 365-day job that often involves tens of thousands of students and thousands of employees,” Mr. Hartle says. “These are not small jobs, and the people running these institutions are compensated accordingly.”

Still, Hartle points out that the median figures are not so high as the headline-grabbing top salaries: about $760,000 at large research universities and $390,000 at liberal arts colleges.

“Presidential salaries make up a very small percentage of overall campus budgets, and have virtually no impact on tuition increases,” said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, in a statement.

Among sitting college presidents, Gerald Turner at Southern Methodist University topped the list with compensation of $2.8 million. (He’s the president who cashed out a life insurance policy, which accounted for $1.5 million of that.) Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was the highest-paid Ivy League president, with compensation of $1.8 million. And New York University president John Sexton had the highest base pay: $1.2 million.

Many of those in the over-$1 million camp lead large, well-known universities, but they also include presidents of lesser-known schools like the University of Tulsa, Drexel University, and Clark Atlanta University.

Still, if their salary seems high, compare what presidents at these nonprofit institutions are earning compared with their for-profit counterparts. According to a study earlier this year by the Chronicle, CEOs of publicly traded higher-education companies include Andrew Clark of Bridgepoint Education, who received total compensation (most of it in stock options and other compensation) of $20.5 million and Charles Edelstein of Apollo Group, whose compensation was $11.3 million. Or there’s Robert Silberman, the CEO Strayer Education Inc. who – Bloomberg reported last week – last year made $41.9 million.

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