While former president of Penn State University, Graham Spanier, left the university during the worst scandal it has seen during his 16 year tenure, he was well compensated as the highest-paid public university president last year.
Spanier received total compensation of $2.9 million in the 2011-12 school year, including $1.2 million in severance pay and $1.2 million in deferred compensation paid during that year. Spanier was fired as president in November 2011 for his handling of the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
"Mr. Spanier still enjoys some real pockets of support on the faculty, who argue that his leadership of the university warrants high pay," said Jack Stripling, senior reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education. "But for those who believe the charge that Mr. Spanier covered up allegations of sexual abuse on the part of Jerry Sandusky, the Nittany Lions former defensive coordinator, Mr. Spanier's hefty compensation surely can't sit well."
Last year, E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, was the highest-paid public university president, with more than $2 million in compensation. In this year's list, he was the public president with the highest base salary at $830,439 in 2011-12, up from $814,157 the previous year.
Gee was the first public-college president to surpass the million-dollar threshold in The Chronicle's list for the 2007-08 list.
The average public university president earned $441,392 in the last fiscal year, but there were four who earned more than $1 million despite state and local budget cuts and financially struggling public school systems.
Median total compensation increased 4.7 percent for the 2011-2012 year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the weekly newspaper that collects this data annually.
The newspaper released 2010 data about private university president salaries in December. The highest-paid president on that list was Bob Kerrey of the New School in New York City, which he left in 2010. He received $3,047,703 in total compensation that year.
Stripling said a number of factors inform presidential pay, but peer group is a large one.
"College trustees tend to look at what the presidents of other comparable institutions are making when they set compensation levels for their own leaders," Stripling said.
Because the University of Michigan considers Ivy League universities among its peer group, it's no surprise that Mary Sue Coleman, the president at Michigan, is paid on par with the leaders of some of the nation's elite private colleges, he said.
Coleman, who became president in September 2002, made $918,783 during the 2011-12 year and was the sixth highest-paid president in the Chronicle's list.
"By the same token, a place like East Tennessee State University, where the president makes less than the typical college leader, compares itself to a set of other regional institutions where pay is lower," he said. Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University since January 2012, made $308,586 and was 181st in the list.
Read more: Top 15 Universities With Wealthiest Alumni
Here are the 11 highest-paid presidents of public universities, as compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education for the 2012 fiscal year:
quicklist:1 category: Pennsylvania State University at University Park title: Graham B. Spanier media: 19168030 text: Total compensation: $2,906,721. Assumed office September 1995 and left November 2011.
quicklist:2 category: Auburn University title: Jay Gogue media: text: Total compensation: $2,542,865. Assumed office July 2007.
quicklist: 3 category: Ohio State University-Main Campus title: E. Gordon Gee media: text: Total compensation: $1,899,420. Assumed office October 2007.
quicklist:4 category: George Mason University title: Alan G. Merten media: text: Total compensation: $1,869,369. Assumed office July 1996.
quicklist:5 category: Ball State University title: Jo Ann M. Gora media: text: Total compensation: $984,647. Assumed office August 2004.
quicklist:6 category: University of Michigan system (Ann Arbor) title: Mary Sue Coleman media: text: Total compensation: $918,783. Assumed office September 2002.
quicklist:7 category: Virginia Tech title: Charles W. Steger media: text: Total compensation: $857,749. Assumed office January 2000.
quicklist:8 category: University of California system title: Mark G. Yudof media: text: Total compensation: $847,149. Assumed office June 2008.
quicklist:9 category: University of Florida title: Bernard J. Machen media: text: Total compensation: $834,562. Assumed office December 2003.
quicklist:10 category: Francisco G. Cigarroa title: University of Texas system media: text: Total compensation: $815,833. Assumed office Dec. February 2009.
quicklist: 11 category: Florida A&M University title: James Ammons media: text: Total compensation: $781,024. Assumed office July 2007.