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27 private colleges pay presidents more than $500,000

Although academia is not traditionally known for high salaries, 27 private college presidents earned more than $500,000 last year, a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows.

The survey of 595 private colleges found that the median pay for the presidents of research universities increased 30 percent from the 1997 fiscal year to the 2001 fiscal year. In contrast, the pay for presidents of liberal arts colleges grew by 4 percent.

Still, the survey found, it was a liberal arts college president who topped last year's chart: Claire Gaudiani, the Connecticut College president who resigned under pressure, with a half-million-dollar severance package that brought her compensation to $898,410.

Gaudiani's compensation included her regular pay and benefits, $346,000, plus the $551,500 golden parachute that aroused the ire of faculty members, most of whom had sought her ouster. College spokeswoman Trish Brink said the severance package was a fair reflection of the contributions Gaudiani had made in 13 years as president.

No. 2 on the compensation list, and the highest paid of presidents staying in place, was Judith Rodin, who received $808,021 at the University of Pennsylvania.

College presidents are by no means the highest-paid people in academia: Many surgeons, medical professors and others earn more than the presidents of the universities where they work. At Vanderbilt University, the highest paid official was William Spitz, the vice chancellor for investments, who earned $3,217,311.

But college presidents' pay is growing far more rapidly than professors'. At Penn and Princeton, where faculty pay rose 4.8 percent from 2000 to 2001, the president's pay went up by 16 and 43 percent.

But there is some concern that university presidents' pay could enter the same escalating spiral as corporate compensation. In last year's survey, the Chronicle found only 12 private college presidents earned more than $500,000, compared with 27 in this year's survey. Two years ago, only seven did.

Competition for the top recruits has never been fiercer, with public and private universities increasingly vying for the same candidates. Compensation for those who lead large state university systems, too, has escalated, so that Texas and Tennessee top $700,000.

But education experts have begun to wonder why university presidents should earn more than the president of the United States, and whether the arguments for high corporate compensation make any sense in academia, where the mission is not to make money, and there is no market to measure results.

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the rising pay for presidents poses dangers to higher education.

"As the president's pay goes up, it raises what you pay the provosts, the deans, and so on, and that cost escalation, at a time of recession when we're going to have to raise tuition anyway, sends a pretty insensitive message," Callan said. "It's yet to be proven that you have to pay so much to attract good people. But there's a ratcheting effect, so every institution, every headhunter, every board of trustees now has to deal with it."