Rising pay for university presidents is now a familiar and inevitable annual story, but it’s a trend that shouldn’t be routinely accepted. It deserves the very things university presidents are supposed to promote – assessment and reflection.
This year’s data compiled and reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that private college presidents’ compensation in 2014 averaged $489,927.
The trend was plain in North Carolina where the presidents of Duke, Wake Forest and High Point University were all paid over $1 million. Public University presidents, who traditionally lag behind their private counterparts, also are making impressive gains. UNC system President Margaret Spellings has a base salary of $775,000 – $175,000 more than her predecessor, Tom Ross. Chancellors at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, each paid over a half million dollars annually, got raises last year of 13 percent and 9.6 percent respectively.
Despite receiving salaries that dwarf the pay of professors and lower-level administrators, presidents and chancellors could be said to be underpaid. Their pay is a tiny fraction of the money they bring into their institutions through fundraising and winning grants and gifts. And they are part of small universe of people with the academic credentials and the administrative and political skills to lead large institutions of higher learning.
Nonetheless, the rising salaries ought to give the higher education leaders and the public pause. Will pay grow ever upward and the gap between the leaders and lower levels of higher education grow ever wider? Income inequality is one of the nation’s most pressing issues and one that our colleges and universities should be working to resolve, not exemplify.
And with the need for better education in a high-tech economy growing, the affordability of higher education should be coming down. Perhaps that movement could start at the top with presidents leading by example. N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson has done so. He and his wife Susan have donated $1.15 million to seed a fund that will provide scholarships for dependents of the university’s employees.
The top executives at universities deserve to be very well compensated, but they are not simply CEOs or fund managers. They lead institutions that along with educating students are relied upon to consider the ills of society and offer solutions.
A robust and honest discussion about how much pay is enough for presidents and the top ranks of administrators would be good for higher education and the nation and culture its institutions serve.