Tuition is rising sharply, and many schools are still fighting through budget cuts. But the salaries of the highest-paid college presidents are also increasing, according to a survey out Monday.
The number of university presidents earning more than half a million dollars jumped again this year, though overall they remain a small minority.
Seventeen presidents of public universities and systems will earn more than $500,000 this year, up from 12 last year and six the year before, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education's compensation survey. Tuition at four-year public colleges rose 10.5 percent this year.
At private colleges and universities, the number of presidents earning more than $500,000 rose from 27 to 42 in fiscal 2003, the last year for which data are available for the private institutions.
Johns Hopkins University President William Brody's total compensation of $897,786 topped all college presidents.
The University of Washington's Mark Emmert is the top earner among public presidents, with a package that will total $762,000 in pay and benefits.
Several education experts said the figures aren't necessarily a sign of excess, given the competition for strong leaders, who are at least as valuable in tough times as in flush ones.
Many of the top earners preside over complex institutions and manage thousands of employees. At schools like Johns Hopkins, they also oversee teaching hospitals.
"Certainly in the private sector you'd be paying four, five, six times more for the same function," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents universities. Jim Boyle, president of College Parents of America, said high salaries aren't necessarily a problem, since finding a strong leader can hold tuition down in the long run.
Still, the figures concern some observers.
"I don't underestimate the important work they do," said Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors and a former president in New York's state university system. "But I think they're starting to look more like CEOs than college presidents, and I think public trust is a real issue."
The median salary for presidents at public institutions was $328,400. This is the first year the Chronicle has computed a median salary for those presidents, so it can't say for sure whether the median increased.
But it has tracked median salaries at private schools, which last year rose 19 percent to $459,643 at private research universities.
Ward said the increases are being driven less by raises than by big jumps when schools recruit someone new.
For instance, at Washington, where Emmert earned $762,000 (including a one-time relocation incentive), his predecessor earned $296,400 and the interim president $405,000.
Taxpayers don't foot the whole bill to pay presidents at many public universities. Private foundations contribute at least part of the president's salary at nearly half the public institutions the Chronicle surveyed, up from one-third last year, with a median amount of support of $100,000.
But such arrangements have also caused conflicts over influence. After a dispute with the University of Georgia Foundation, the board of regents overseeing the system there voted recently to pay the salary of President Michael Adams entirely with state funds. He will earn $637,966 this year.