Five presidents have cracked the $1 million compensation barrier, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education to be released Monday, and more are sure to follow. Nine earned more than $900,000 - a figure none broke in last year's report.
All were at private universities, and the figures are for fiscal 2004, the most recent information available for private schools. More recent data on public universities, for the current academic year, shows salaries are rising there, too. Leaders of 23 public institutions are being paid $500,000 or more this year, up from 17 a year ago.
Donald Ross of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. topped the list at $5.04 million. However, all but $477,000 of that was deferred compensation awarded after 34 years as president.
He was followed by Audrey K. Doberstein of Wilmington College in Delaware ($1.37 million) and Gordon Gee of Vanderbilt ($1.33 million).
In past surveys, the only presidents to break $1 million did so in their final years of service, their compensation boosted by some kind of severance or retirement package. This year's survey, however, features two million-dollar presidents - Ross and Gee - who are still on the job.
Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan is the highest paid public university president this year with $724,604 in compensation, followed by David P. Roselle of the University of Delaware ($720,522 in fiscal 2004, the most recent figures provided in his case) and Mark G. Yudof of the University of Texas system ($693,677).
Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington attorney and expert on presidential contracts and compensation, said salary competition is being fueled by a wave of retirements by baby boomer college presidents, and by the growing desire of governing boards to hire only presidents who have already been presidents elsewhere.
"What's happening is there's an imbalance of supply and demand," Cotton said.
The competition has driven the average tenure of the president of a large college down to about five years on average - often too short for effective leadership.
"It's definitely not good to have instability at the top," Cotton said.
Still, most presidents at the nation's 3,500 colleges and universities earn far less. Other figures from the Chronicle show the average chief executive of a single institution earns a salary of about $181,000. And even the salaries of top college presidents pale in comparison to those of top corporate CEOs.
Cotton said he sees the compensation of private college presidents rising more rapidly than that of their public counterparts, whose schools educate far more students.
"That is troublesome to me," he said. "That's to me where we should be emphasizing the quality of the leadership."
After a long-running dispute over release of the figure, Penn State University agreed for the first time to provide the Chronicle salary information for President Graham Spanier. He will be paid $492,000 this year, 25th among the 139 public universities surveyed.