Public higher education's million-dollar club just got bigger. Four public-college presidents earned more than $1-million in 2011-12, up from three a year earlier, a Chronicle analysis has found. The median total compensation for public-college leaders rose to $441,392, an increase of 4.7 percent from 2010-11.
The top earner was Graham B. Spanier, who received $2.9-million. Mr. Spanier, who was fired in 2011 in connection with a child-sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach, received most of his money in severance pay and deferred compensation, which is money he earned during his 16-year presidency that was not previously paid out.
The Chronicle's analysis included 212 college leaders at 191 public institutions.
The first public-college president to cross the million-dollar threshold in The Chronicle's annual survey was E. Gordon Gee, who, in 2007-8, earned $1.3-million at Ohio State University. He received $1.9-million in 2011-12, making him the third-highest-paid public-college president in the nation.
Among the nation's 10 highest-paid presidents, most had a combination of higher than typical base salaries and payouts of years of accumulated deferred-compensation or retirement benefits.
Many presidents have a substantial portion of their overall pay tied up in deferred compensation, which they receive only if they stay on the job for a specified number of years. Trustees say they prefer such arrangements because deferred-compensation plans help retain presidents. But the prevalence of such benefits also means that the public can learn relatively little about those presidents' overall earnings by looking at base salary alone.
Jay Gogue, for example, president of Auburn University, earned $482,070 in base salary in 2011-12. That is well above the $373,800 median base pay for public-college presidents, but it hardly tells the full story of Mr. Gogue's compensation.
His total earnings in the most recent fiscal year amounted to $2.5-million, making him the second-highest-paid public-university president in the country. Nearly 75 percent of that sum came from a payout of five years of deferred compensation.
Auburn officials say they have gotten a good deal. They cite the university's "record levels of student achievement" and engagement with industry leaders among the president's accomplishments.
"In basic financial terms, the return on investment is remarkably high," Camille Barkley, a university spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Mr. Gogue declined an interview request.
He became president at Auburn in 2007, after years of tumultuous relations between the faculty and the two previous presidents. William I. Sauser Jr., president of Auburn's Faculty Senate, says Mr. Gogue has smoothed things over with professors. His compensation "has not been an issue among faculty as a whole," Mr. Sauser wrote in an e-mail. "We have the best working relationship at present that I have experienced since joining the faculty in 1977."
College presidents, particularly those at public institutions, are all too aware of the political ramifications of a big bump in pay. At a time when budgets are tight and tuition is rising, they can expect some backlash when a raise makes news.
Fearing as much, Jo Ann M. Gora, president of Ball State University, turned down a pay increase last summer.
"She did not want to be a distraction to the challenging work ahead of us," Hollis E. Hughes Jr., president of the university's Board of Trustees, said at a board meeting, which was covered by The Star Press, in Muncie, Ind. "On this she was quite firm."
Ms. Gora, who became president in 2004, asked that her salary remain at $431,244, the newspaper reported.
Unmentioned, however, was a deferred-compensation payout of the same amount, which she received three weeks later. That payout, which had accumulated over five years, combined with other benefits to bring her 2011-12 total compensation to $984,647. Just four other public-college presidents in the nation made more than that.
Both Ms. Gora and Mr. Hughes declined interview requests. Mr. Hughes, though, issued a statement: "Dr. Gora's compensation reflects her performance as president," it said. He went on to praise her work on a strategic plan and the university's legislative and fund-raising successes.
"Without question," Mr. Hughes said, "Ball State University is in a much better place today than it was when Dr. Gora arrived."