The number of college and university presidents taking home eye-popping paychecks continues to climb – even as more and more students have trouble paying their tuition bills.
Fifty-nine presidents of public universities reeled in more than $500,000 in salary and benefits during the 2007-08 academic year, more than double the number who broke the half-million mark three years earlier, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education released on Monday.
Among private-college presidents, 89 now earn at least $500,000, up from 70 in the survey two years earlier.
David J. Sargent, president of little-known Suffolk University in Massachusetts, headed the pay parade, corralling $2,800,461.
He was followed by Northwestern University President Henry Bienen, who took in $1,742,560, and Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, who received $1,411,894 in salary and benefits.
E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University sat atop the salary heap for public university presidents in the survey, bringing in $1,346,255.
There was one notable twist to this year's salary survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education: Some college presidents recently have turned down pay raises, including the leaders of Rutgers University, the University of Connecticut, Rowan University, the University of Louisville and Brevard Community College.
For University of Connecticut President Michael Hogan, that meant turning aside what most likely would have been a $100,000 bonus. "Under the circumstances, I just didn't feel right taking [it]," Hogan told the Chronicle.
The pay increases noted in the new survey were awarded before the financial crisis began battering the economy this fall.
Still, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, issued a statement saying he was troubled by the growing compensation packages at a time students and parents are having more and more difficulty paying for college.
"The Chronicle's study shows that the executive suite seems insulated from budget crunches," Grassley said. "In these hard economic times, apparently belt tightening is for families and students, not university presidents."
The editor of the Chronicle, Jeffrey Selingo, said, "Salaries of college presidents always get scrutiny. But this year, students, parents, trustees and lawmakers are likely to take a closer look at whether presidents are worth the cost given how worried families are about affording tuition as everyone is feeling a bit poorer."
College presidents defend their compensation packages, saying they function, in effect, as chief executives overseeing complex, multibillion-dollar enterprises – and are still paid far less than CEOs in other lines of work.
"The trouble is that most people…have little idea what we do," Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College, wrote in an op-ed piece that accompanies the Chronicle survey.
The new survey found that executive compensation increased by 7.6 percent, to $427,400, for the leaders of 184 public research universities.
Total compensation for the leaders of private institutions actually declined by 0.2 percent, but Selingo said the drop was a statistical anomaly -- the result of several established, high-paid university presidents retiring.
Still, Selingo said the salary gap between the presidents of public and private college and universities was narrowing.
"Privates have long paid a lot more than publics, by the salaries at the public universities definitely are rising at a much faster rate," he said.
"Eighty percent of the students go to the public universities, they are becoming a lot more complex to operate, and they are under more and more pressure to operate more efficiently and turn out better graduates. The competition for talent to run them has increased greatly."
The $2.8 million payday for Suffolk University President David J. Sargent broke down this way: $436,000 in base pay, a $436,000 longevity bonus, a deferred sabbatical bonus of $1.19 million, $555,667 in deferred compensation, a performance bonus of $87,200 and $56,262 in health, dental and other benefits.
Nicholas Macaronis, chairman of Suffolk's Board of Trustees, defending the compensation package, telling the Chronicle, "In more than a half century at Suffolk University, President Sargent has been the heart, the soul and the vision of this great institution. His compensation should be appropriate for a president of an outstanding major urban institution."