College Presidents: Enemy of the State?

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For much of this year, governors in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey have launched feverish debates about the salaries of public employees like teachers, but a new report may turn that spotlight on a new group: presidents of public colleges.

Salaries and compensation for public college presidents averaged a very generous $375,442 in the 2009-2010 school year, an increase of roughly 1% from the previous year, according to data released this week by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In fact, many presidents around the country earned twice that amount or more.

E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, earned a total compensation of $1.3 million, while Francisco Cigarroa and William C. Powers Jr., presidents of the University of Texas and the University of Texas, Austin, respectively, each earned roughly $750,000. And each of the presidents in the top 10 earned more than half a million dollars.

These numbers are even higher if the total cost of employment for these professors (are they really profesors?), meaning additional funds paid for car allowances, tuition assistance, retirement costs and other deferred compensation, are factored in. With this factored in, Gee actually earned close to $2 million for the school year, while Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, earned more than $900,000.

As lavish as these salaries may be, they’re still nothing compared to the salaries of those who head up private universities. One report put out by the Chronicle last year found that 30 private university presidents earned at least $1 million in total compensation in the 2008-2009 school year, with some earning a whopping $4 million or more.

But even though private university presidents generally earn more than the heads of public schools, the Chronicle notes that it’s the public university presidents who are particularly susceptible to public outrage, precisely because they work for a state-funded institution at a time when many states are struggling to balance their budgets.

“The highest-paid public-college executives, who receive compensation packages in the high six figures and more, walk a difficult political tightrope. They must at once argue that their state budgets have been cut to the bone and need to be restored, while at the same time acknowledging their rarefied personal financial circumstances in states where layoffs, program closures, and pay reductions have been all too common,” the Chronicle writes. “In making that case, presidents and the trustees who set their salaries have for years argued that, irrespective of economic conditions, those presidential pay levels are fair, necessary, and performance-driven.”

This is particularly problematic for presidents of universities in states like Texas and California, several of which ranked among the 10 highest paid, as these states were expected to have budget shortfalls of nearly a third for this fiscal year.

To make matters worse, college tuition has been on the rise recently, increasing by roughly 8% for the current school year, further squeezing the families of students pursuing higher education. Public schools have been a big factor in this cost increase, as some have been forced to raise tuition due to state budget problems.

Perhaps the most notable example of this is the  University of California, Berkeley, which broke a major milestone last year, becoming the first public university to charge more than $50,000 a year in tuition.

In this environment, is it really appropriate for public college presidents to give themselves raises on top of the high salaries they were all ready making?

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