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Academic salaries: Paying the smart money

The salaries of college and university presidents have been going up, but savvy leadership has a price.

November 04, 2009

Whatever happened to the shabby, low-paid academic, pipe in mouth, tweed jacket frayed at the elbows? To start with, many were smart enough to give up smoking. But something has been happening with salaries too. Though most college instructors still earn low pay considering their high education level, there's no question that at the top levels of college management, rock-star contracts have been making wealthy people out of yesterday's intellectuals.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the number of private college and university presidents earning more than $1 million in total compensation has been growing. But before you start yelling "excesses of the financial industry all over again," it's worth noting that this elite club is still tiny -- 23 college presidents among the 419 reviewed by the publication. The median salary for the president of a large research university had risen to $628,000 -- though the figures cited by the publication were for the 2007-08 academic year. As the economy spiraled downward in 2008, many college leaders took no raises or volunteered for pay cuts.

Still, running a university pays a hefty chunk of cash that often leaves the public fuming, especially the parental public that shells out an average of $40,000 a year for tuition, room and board.

We agree that colleges and universities could do more to contain costs. The academic arms race for prestige names has kept tuition costs on an inexorable, family-budget-crushing trajectory upward, regardless of the pain in the rest of the economy. And then there was the time the University of California paid an administrator a $125,000 relocation bonus to move 70 miles.

But excellent college leadership is necessary, now more than ever, and that costs. University presidents usually are respected scholars in their own right who must combine a broad grasp of academic issues with administrative and public relations skills -- and perhaps above all, a knack for fundraising. Great university management draws great faculty, who in turn attract top students, fellowships and grants.

Just look at USC, where President Steven B. Sample announced days ago that he will step down next summer. In his 19 years at the university, Sample built its academic reputation and oversaw the growth of its endowment by more than $2 billion. The school's national ranking in U.S. News & World Report rose from 51st to 26th among research universities as it drew more high-achieving students with merit scholarships. His salary, currently about $800,000, should be considered a bargain.

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