BOSTON – Pay for public college presidents continued to climb in 2015, and a growing number of chiefs topped the $1 million mark, according to results from a new study.
The median total pay for public university presidents reached $431,000 in the 2015 fiscal year, an increase of 4.3 percent over the year before, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Five presidents were paid packages of more than $1 million, up from two presidents in the previous year and three in 2013.
Topping the list was Renu Khator, who was paid $1.3 million to serve as both chancellor of the University of Houston system and president of its Houston campus.
She was followed by Michael Gottfredson, former president of the University of Oregon; Michael Young, president of Texas A&M University's flagship campus; William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system and a retired United States Navy admiral; and Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University.
The pay for Gottfredson, who resigned in 2014, includes a $940,000 severance package. Young and McRaven started their jobs in 2015, and their pay reflects the portions of the year that they worked. Officials at the University of Houston say that both Young and McRaven will surpass Khator in pay during the current fiscal year.
"I can say unequivocally that Chancellor Khator's salary is appropriate based on her stellar track record and the achievements she has helped the UH system and the University of Houston obtain," Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the University of Houston's board of regents, wrote in a letter in response to the Chronicle survey.
But critics question whether colleges should be raising pay for their presidents at a time when schools face increasing pressure to rein in costs.
"Schools are resisting changes, but they're going ahead and continuing to make these large payments to university presidents, and I think it's the height of irresponsibility," said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University.
Along with base salaries, the survey tallied bonuses, retirement pay, severance packages, and deferred compensation — payments that were set aside in previous years but paid in 2015, often used as a retention tool. The annual survey released on Sunday examined pay for the leaders of 236 colleges and school systems.
Public university presidents are typically paid less than their peers at private colleges, whose pay is gathered separately by The Chronicle. According to the most recent study of private schools, which used data from 2013, more than 30 colleges paid their leaders at least $1 million, led by $4.6 million at Columbia University.
But pay at public schools has steadily grown in recent years. The 4.3 percent increase in 2015 follows a 7 percent jump the year before, and a 5 percent increase in 2013. Governing boards that oversee colleges often defend the costs, saying it takes a competitive pay package to recruit and retain a talented chief executive.
"Higher education has become a competitive market for leaders. We compete for the best, and we want to keep them," Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, said in a statement. A spokesman for the system added that, at Georgia State, Becker's $500,000 bonus last year came from a private foundation.
Among the top earners, base salary is typically only a fraction of the overall pay, often outweighed by weighty annual bonuses and deferred payments built into contracts. In 2015, the largest base salaries went to Michael Drake at Ohio State University and Eric Barron at Pennsylvania State University, each paid $800,000.
Next year, two presidents — McRaven and Young — are scheduled to exceed $1 million in base salary, which would be the highest since The Chronicle started collecting that data in 2009. Before, the largest was $851,000, paid to E. Gordon Gee in 2013 as part of a $5 million retirement package during his last year at Ohio State.