As the economy staggered, private college presidents enjoyed modest raises and saw the ranks of those making at least $1 million swell from 33 to 36 — including the president of a West Virginia school that’s facing accreditation problems and has one of the worst official graduation rates in the country.
The median 2009 compensation for leaders at private schools was $386,000, up 2.2 percent from the year before, according to the latest annual analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The figures cover 519 presidents at private colleges with total budgets of at least $50 million, and reflect the most recent year for which data from federal tax reports are available.
Constantine Papadakis, the president of Drexel University who passed away in 2009, was the highest paid, though the majority of his $4.9 million compensation came via life insurance and previously accrued compensation paid to his wife. Papadakis earned a base salary of $196,000.
He was followed by William Brody of Johns Hopkins ($3.82 million) and Donald V. DeRosa at the University of the Pacific ($2.36 million). Neither is still president at those schools.
The best-paid private college presidents typically earn more than their public university counterparts. In March, the Chronicle released its separate salary survey of public university leaders, which covers 2009-2010. That list included just one president with total compensation over $1 million: Gordon Gee of Ohio State, who earned $1.82 million.
The Chronicle noted the typical private college president earned 3.7 times the compensation of a full professor on his or her campus, ranging from Patrick White of Wabash College in Indiana, who earned twice the pay of his average professor, to Kevin J. Manning of Stevenson University in Maryland, whose total compensation of $1.49 million was 16 times greater.
But only the very best-paid presidents can compete with the average big-time college football coach. Last month, USA Today reported the average salary of major-college head football coaches jumped 55 percent over the last six seasons, from $950,000 to $1.47 million. Ohio State’s new football coach, Urban Meyer, will earn $4.4 million annually, not counting bonuses and incentives.
While college president pay has risen in recent years, there are signs it is leveling off as high compensation becomes unseemly in an era of tight budgets and economic struggles.
Presidents often note, correctly, that they generally earn less than the CEOs of comparably sized for-profit businesses. David Warren, president of NAICU, which represents private institutions, said in a statement that salaries “reflect supply and demand,” with colleges competing for exceptional leaders.
“The job of college president has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, as have the demands,” he said. He also noted that, contrary to widespread perception, costs at private colleges have actually declined over the last five years, after accounting for inflation and financial aid.
Still, the symbolism of millionaire presidents at a time of acute anxiety about college affordability is a problem, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
“This is not a trend that is helping to build public confidence in higher education,” said Callan, who called on boards to show more salary restraint. “It helps explain why a majority of Americans think that higher education is more interested in its own bottom line than in the educational experience of students. It’s misplaced priorities.”