College presidents’ rising pay strains values

High Point University

High Point University lived up to its name in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s latest annual survey of compensation for private college presidents.

The president of HPU, the motivational speaker-turned-educator Nido Qubein, came in near the pinnacle of pay. His $2.9 million in earnings, more than half from deferred compensation, ranked third on a list covering 497 institutions during 2013. Qubein’s total was second only to two Ivy League presidents: Lee C. Bollinger, who received $4.6 million from Columbia University, and Amy Gutmann, whose salary and bonus at the University of Pennsylvania totaled just over $3 million.

Qubein’s lofty rank raises a question of how he could be worth such a sum. High Point University, though improved under Qubein’s leadership, is hardly in a class with Columbia and Penn. On Forbes list of top colleges, HPU is No. 552. But the disconnect between high pay and modest ratings bothers few people since presidents are no longer measured by their wisdom, vision and scholarship but by their ability to raise funds.

By that standard, Qubein may be underpaid. The High Point president, whose base salary is $662,000, has tripled the school’s enrollment to 4,325, doubled its faculty, greatly expanded its campus and raised $275 million. Richard Vert, chairman of High Point’s board of trustees, said in a statement, “It would be impossible to compensate Dr. Qubein for the incredible results he delivers.”

The results, of course, are dollars. And Qubein excels at raising them. But his gaudy salary at a nonprofit institution nonetheless points to a worrisome and worsening trend in higher education. Thirty two presidents on the list made more than $1 million and the Chronicle reports that “the typical private-college leader made $436,429 in 2013, up 5.6 percent from the year before.”

Leading a college or university used to be about the pursuit of knowledge. Now it’s about the pursuit of donors. And those who are good at it do very well. In North Carolina, two other presidents made the million dollar club. Richard Brodhead’s total 2013 compensation at Duke was $1.2 million and Nathan Hatch received $1.1 million at Wake Forest.

The presidents are not at fault, and many, such as Qubein, donate generously to their institutions. But a constant rise in president pay nonetheless contrasts starkly with rising tuitions and the heavy debt borne by students, flat pay for faculty and the widespread use of adjunct professors who work for low pay and few benefits.

It may be too late to ask, but it would still be good for universities – private and public – to ponder how pay at all levels promotes or undermines their values.

The question, unfortunately, is more than academic.