There's quite a bit of press attention surrounding the release of the Chronicle of Higher Education's annual survey of college president compensation for the year 2011. Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe all have stories.
One element of it that struck me as particularly newsworthy was the way that some of the big money comes as golden parachutes or exit payments. From the Globe article:
The survey found that in 2011, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, received $3.1 million in total compensation, more than every other college and university chief except University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, who had a total compensation of $3.4 million.
Northeastern said Aoun's 2011 compensation included $2 million that was set aside for him. He will not be paid the money until his time at the helm of the university ends, the school said.
Fifth on the list was former Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow, who retired in the summer of 2011 after a decade at the school. His total compensation in 2011 was $2.2 million, the survey found.
Tufts spokeswoman Kimberly M. Thurler said that figure included "a one-time, lump-sum payment of approximately $1.7 [million]," which included salary and benefits in lieu of an earned sabbatical, as well as accrued vacation.
Former Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx, who left that job in June 2011, notched the 11th place on the list, with $1.6 million in total compensation. Amherst spokesman Peter Rooney said Marx received "about $1.4 million in post-presidential pay" in 2011, in addition to $215,000 in "regular compensation."
This is the same Anthony Marx who reportedly got around New York in a 2009 Audi owned by the New York Public Library, which Mr. Marx became president of after leaving Amherst.
If private institutions want to pay like this for difficult jobs, I have no objection. But when the same institutions go marching indignantly down to Washington in fully alarmist mode any time a Congress wants to moderate the rate of growth in Pell Grants, or federal research funding, or reduce the taxpayer-subsidized loans and tuition tax credits that allow families to pay the ever-escalating tuitions at these institutions, you wonder how long this sort of thing will go more or less unchallenged as a political and public policy matter. I realize plenty of defense industry executives earn big money as federal contractors, too. And I realize, too, that American higher education, and the academic medical centers that some of these institutions include, are world leaders. And I realize that just because as an accounting matter a payout that has been earned over time gets paid out or disclosed as a lump sum in one year, compensation can look deceptively large. But even conceding all these things, it seems like an inviting political issue.
You'd think that by now at least some politician would have proposed the College Tuition Affordability Act of 2013, imposing a tax on colleges and universities that receive federal research or Pell Grant money. The tax would be the amount of money by which the college president's salary exceeds that of the president of the United States (or of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or $1 million, adjusted for inflation, or something to that effect). Symbolic, perhaps. And nothing to prevent the college presidents from cashing in on the side with corporate board seats a la Drew Faust and Staples or Lee Bollinger and the Washington Post Co (now Graham Holdings). But it would make a point.