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By Robert Atwell
hilemany sitting and aspiring college presidents
seem to be applauding the run-up in presidential
compensation, at least a few of us are concerned. The
escalation is thus far largely limited to a fewwealthy private
institutions, but it has also opened the door for the governing
boards of public institutions to engage in keeping up with the
There is no doubt that the job of college or university
president, always difficult, has become muchmore
demanding, with increased attention to fundraising, the
intense competition within the industry, and the necessity to
work with stakeholder groups with often conflicting pressures.
It may not be a 24-7 job, but for many it allows little time for
a private life. I have known and worked with hundreds of
presidents and have admired the energy, tenacity and vision of
most of them.
But it does not
follow that governing
boards should follow
the recent corporate
models characterized
by excessive CEO
greed, often unrelated
to performance. For
one thing, some of
us believe that greed
is out of hand in
corporate America
as the gap between
the compensation of top executives and their workers grows
exponentially and scandalously. That is something to be
deplored and not emulated.
But more importantly, successful college presidents
need the support of their faculties and other stakeholders.
Governing boards too often believe that their institutions
are just like a business, in which the CEO, supported by
a few carefully selected directors and executives, can call
the shots. That is not generally the case in academe, where
the stakeholders have muchmore sway than in corporate
America. The responsibilities are comparable but corporate
CEOs have muchmore authority than college presidents. The
very term “CEO” is a bit misplaced when applied to academe.
Most college presidents have the credentials and academic
record associated with the teaching and research enterprise.
This is not to minimize the success of a few “non-traditional”
presidents—and I have advocated that governing boards and
search committees should be more open to the candidacies of
non-traditional persons—but their road to acceptance is made
more difficult by the fact that they have not “gone through the
Summer 2004
College Presidents, or CEOs?
Presidential pay is escalating at a time when institutions are cutting budgets
Academe has a rather rigid
institutional pecking order,
accompanied by the snobbery of
faculty members who are not easily
persuaded to accept any leadership—
it is often said that the academy
is the last bastion of professional
anarchy—and, when persuaded,
insist that the leader be one of them.
This world view is both the glory and
the curse of our industry. Anything
that separates the leader from the
followers, and escalating presidential
compensation is certainly a big factor
in this separation, is divisive and
ultimately works against the notion of
shared governance which is so central
to most of our institutions.
It is the case that many presidents (particularly community
college presidents) are underpaid, just as it is the case that most
faculty and senior staffmembers are underpaid in light of their
responsibilities and their value to society. An oversupply of
Ph.D.s inmany fields, coupled with the budgetary problems
of many institutions, has allowed professorial salaries to fall
behind other professions. By contrast, one of the factors
contributing to escalating presidential salaries is the mistaken
belief that good people will not otherwise take these difficult
positions. My experience in the executive search business
convinces me that there is no shortage of good candidates
for strong institutions, and, while
compensation is important, it is not the
major driver of presidential aspirants.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity
to lead a college or a university, and the
experience of many of us who have held
these jobs is that, with all the difficulties,
it is hard to imagine a more rewarding
In addition to the corporate
mentality of many governing board
members, and the urge to “keep up
with the Joneses,” another major force
driving up presidential pay is the
pressure applied by search firms, which
have a tendency to raise the salary bar
somewhat higher than necessary in order to be sure their
client institutions get the people they want.
Market-driven excesses in football and basketball
coaching salaries are another important factor. Those salaries
have reached new levels of excess at the top levels of NCAA
Division I and are an embarrassing statement about the values
Governing boards
should not follow
the recent corporate
models characterized
by excessive CEO
greed, often unrelated
to performance.
Escalating presidential
compensation is
divisive and ultimately
works against the
notion of shared
governance which is
so central to most of
our institutions.