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Published: Thursday, 11/25/2004

Colleges' 'big bucks game'

ARE college presidents paid too much? Millions of Americans think they are, which makes the question, well, academic. As a result, the perception angers students, upsets parents trying to make ever-increasing tuition payments, and frustrates faculty and staff who earn a fraction of what the school's top executive gets.

The Chronicle of Higher Education found in a compensation survey that while tuition went up an average of 10.5 percent at four-year public colleges this year, the median salary for the presidents was around $328,400.

If anybody is to blame, it's the boards of trustees who set presidential salaries. They claim they pay presidents well to keep them from defecting to corporate America or other institutions.

But most college presidents don't do that at all; most move on to other colleges and universities, sticking with the profession they chose and still enjoy.

University of Toledo President Dan Johnson's salary would have been $243,600 if he had accepted a recent 1.5 percent pay increase. Nobly, he rejected it. Last year, when Bowling Green State University gave President Sidney Ribeau a 3 percent pay raise, his base salary grew to $286,433; he donated the extra money to scholarships and college initiatives. Miami University President Jim Garland's base salary went from $275,000 a year ago to $288,000. With bonuses, Ohio State University President Karen Holbrook gets $437,000 this year.

Those are the only numbers the public remembers when tuition keeps increasing.

Of course, the presidents have tough jobs. They oversee complex institutions that are like small cities. They have many constituencies: the student body, faculty and staff, parents, their communities, and, in the case of public institutions, the legislature. Not for a second do we underestimate the demands.

But while many get CEO-type salaries, they usually don't face the same pressures as their counterparts in business. Consider that Michael Burns, the new CEO of Dana, oversees plants and operations in 30 countries.

The point is not to denigrate presidential salaries in higher education but perhaps to bring some perspective to the discussion. No matter how much money a university throws at its chief administrative officer, if an overwhelming opportunity arises that offers professional enrichment and challenge, he or she will probably take it. It's the American way.

Colleges can offer reasonable compensation and still attract qualified applicants. Nothing is without a ceiling. Paying administrators huge sums when too many students cannot afford college is ultimately self-defeating.



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