Top-Earning College President Takes Home $7.1 Million

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Blake Neff Reporter
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The Chronicle of Higher Education has released its latest survey of what private college presidents make, and it includes eye-popping figures, with top earners easily clearing $3 million a year.

The highest-paid executive in 2012, the year the survey covers, was Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Jackson took home a whopping $7.1 million, nearly double the second-biggest earner, John Lahey at Quinnipiac University, who made $3.7 million. Lee Bollinger of Columbia University, Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, and Charles Middleton of Roosevelt University rounded out the top five with earnings of $3.4 million, $2.4 million, and $1.8 million, respectively.

All told, 36 college presidents made at least $1 million in 2012. Among the 537 presidents on the list, the median payout was about $360,000. Pay increased by 2.5 percent over the previous year, the Chronicle found, a rate of increase noticeably below rapidly-rising tuition costs at most private schools.

Not all presidents made huge sums in 2012. At several dozen schools operated by Catholic religious orders, presidents earn a minimal salary or even none at all. For instance, just five miles away from Renssalaer and its $7.5 million president is Siena College, where president Kevin Mullen has taken a vow of poverty with the Franciscans and is paid nothing.

Even several elite non-religious schools, however, have been able to make do with a president earning less than the median.

Jackson’s base pay is “only” $945,000, but in an accompanying piece the Chronicle notes that it has been driven into the stratosphere by a major deferred-compensation payout. For the past decade, payments have been put aside into a fund that Jackson would have forefeited if she had left the college, a type of “golden handcuffs” used to retain many high-status college presidents.

Jackson, a theoretical physicist and the first black woman to ever receive a doctorate from MIT, isn’t necessarily undeserving of her high pay. During her 15 years at the helm of of the small research university, applications to the school have tripled and she has overseen a massive $750 million building program. Supporters credit her for raising the school’s scholarly profile nationwide. Critics, however, attack both her high price-tag and her membership on at least five different corporate boards, which they argue make it impossible for her to dedicate sufficient to running the university.

While elite national universities unsurprisingly pay their presidents more than smaller colleges, the correlation between prestige and presidential salary is hardly exact. At Princeton University, consistently ranked as the country’s best college by U.S. News and World Report, president Shirley Tilghman is hardly a pauper with $948,000 in earning in 2012, but that figure makes her only 43rd on the list.

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Blake Neff