Top-Earning College Presidents

Michele Norris talks with Audrey Williams-June, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, about a study of the compensation colleges and universities pay their presidents. The study found five presidents who earned more than $1 million in salary and deferred compensation, and nine who came near that mark.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

If you've been wondering what's driving up the cost of college tuition, one answer might be found in the president's office--or more precisely, in the paycheck that president earns. Each year the Chronicle of Higher Education conducts a survey of college presidents' pay packages. The latest was released today, and here's the headline: Five Presidents Have Topped the Million-Dollar Mark. And at least nine more are nipping at their heels, earning more than $900,000. What's remarkable here is that no president earned more than 900,000 in last year's report. To find out what's behind this surge in salaries, we're joined by Audrey Williams June. She's been reporting on this story for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Audrey, first, walk us through these numbers. Why is it that this year five presidents surged past the million-dollar mark?

Ms. AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE (Chronicle of Higher Education): This year we had an instance of where people who made the list actually had served at their institutions, for the most part, for an extended period of time. So you have some retirement packages in there that are clearly worth a substantial amount if they'd been there a long time.

NORRIS: The top earner is Donald Ross from Lynn University. How much does he earn, and what does that total package represent?

Ms. JUNE: For him, you're looking at a total compensation package of just over $5 million. That's made up of a base salary of roughly $477,000. And you have an instance here where he has deferred compensation, which is basically the money that they're going to give him once he retires that is equal to $4 1/2 million. And...

NORRIS: Now how did that number get so large?

Ms. JUNE: They were looking at his total service to the university, which is 34 years to date. And he took over the institution when they were bankrupt, and there was not much money around for them to even pay salaries, much less sock away money for retirement. So the board hired an outside consulting firm to say, `Hey, we need to come up with some--you know, a good figure to represent, you know, what he would have accrued if we had had the financial means to put money aside for him over this, you know, 34-year period that he has served.'

NORRIS: So when he retires, it's safe to assume that the next president at Lynn University will not be receiving $5 million. This is...

Ms. JUNE: It's very safe to assume that.

NORRIS: ...a one-time deal in that case.

Ms. JUNE: This is a one-time thing.

NORRIS: Who are the other four presidents?

Ms. JUNE: You have Audrey Doberstein at Wilmington College, and then you have Gordon Gee at Vanderbilt University; he's still the president there. You have John Silber at Boston University, who had various benefits that he got because of his service at the university over...

NORRIS: So he's being paid, even though he's president emeritus?

Ms. JUNE: Yes, because the survey looked at a time when he actually was serving for at least part of that year as president. And then rounding out the list you have John McCardell at Middlebury College, and he retired at the end of June 2004, and that's retirement money rolled into that for him as well.

NORRIS: What is driving these salaries into the stratosphere?

Ms. JUNE: Those who, you know, really study this issue really cite a bunch of different factors. They look at how the job of college president is extremely demanding. You know, 100 percent of the time, it seems like at least, they're fund-raising, and so they're traveling a great deal of the time, you know, trying to bring this money in. So the boards of trustees are paying for people who can withstand those challenges, in addition to the fact that many people seem to think that there's just a limited pool of people who can actually do these jobs. And so there's some supply-and-demand factor here, where if you want one of these people, you're going to have to pay.

NORRIS: Now we've been talking about private institutions. Are the same things going on--is the same trend evident among public universities?

Ms. JUNE: Yes, the public university presidents are definitely seeing some increases in their salaries. And, you know, some of the same factors are at work, in addition to the fact that on the private side, you're kind of seeing those market forces drive what they do on the public side.

NORRIS: I'm wondering if there might be some sort of backlash at some point, if the parents that actually write those tuition checks as--might there be a backlash there?

Ms. JUNE: I think that's possible. I guess it depends on if the students think they're getting, you know, what they pay for. I think you could have some instances where the students are very pleased with, you know, their classes, the faculty, the opportunities that they have on campus, and they think what their president is being paid is well worth it. They're receiving what they want, which is, you know, a degree from, you know, this particular university, so it's--I think it could go either way.

NORRIS: Audrey June, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. JUNE: Oh, you're welcome.

NORRIS: Audrey Williams June is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was speaking to us about the newspaper's annual survey of college presidents' salaries.

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