CALLING THEM the “builders of men,’’ Mark Twain once said college presidents stand “at the summit of human usefulness.’’ Unfortunately, too many presidents, with the assistance of fawning trustees, today earn salaries that tower over those of professors, raising concerns about the priorities of these nonprofit institutions in an era of heavy student debt.
Even though colleges aren’t businesses, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding effective management with high pay. But the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the private colleges that spent the highest percentage of their budgets on the president in 2009 were often relatively obscure schools with questionable distinction. Topping the list was Mountain State University, based in West Virginia, which pays its president $1.8 million despite having only 4 percent of its students graduate within six years. In third place was Stevenson University outside Baltimore, which pays its president nearly $1.5 million, 16 times the average pay of a full professor.
In 10th place was Western New England University, a campus of about 2,700 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students in Springfield which paid President Anthony Caprio nearly $1.2 million. That seems a bit high for a school that, even though it made the annual US News and World Report rankings, graduates only about half its undergraduates in four years. University officials said Caprio’s base pay, listed by the Chronicle as $388,263, was vastly enhanced in 2009 by a one-time vesting of benefits that had accrued over the years.
But one by one, school by school, these “enhancements’’ are a key reason total compensation for presidents keeps rising, decoupled from faculty pay and soaring student debt. To borrow from Twain, college presidents are indeed builders of men and women. But they are teaching their students a curious lesson when they choose to be the architects of their own unfettered fortunes.