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Simmons president among the nation’s highest paid

Simmons University President Helen Drinan (right) attended The Friends of the Mass. General Cancer Center Couture for Care Cancer Fall Fashion Benefit in November.Bill Brett for the Boston Globe

Simmons University may be dwarfed by Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Northeastern when it comes to size and name recognition. But it has most Boston-area higher education institutions beat on at least one measure: its president’s compensation package.

Simmons president Helen Drinan ranked among the highest-paid private college presidents nationwide, according to an annual survey released Sunday by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Drinan earned $1.7 million in 2016, ranking her 13th among private college presidents in compensation. Her pay package put her in an elite group of top earners that included the presidents of Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, according to the survey, based on the most recent federal tax filings.


Longtime Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger and Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, remain the best compensated leaders of private institutions in the nation. Bollinger made $4 million in 2016. Gutmann followed, earning $3.2 million. (They were technically ranked No. 2 and No. 3. Kenneth W. Starr was the top-paid president in 2016 due to his departure agreement with Baylor University.)

Meanwhile, the presidents of Harvard and MIT in 2016, Drew Faust and L. Rafael Reif, earned about $1.1 million each in salary and benefits, putting their compensation at the bottom of the top 50 earners.

Northeastern president Joseph Aoun received $1.3 million in compensation.

In Massachusetts, only Robert Brown, president of Boston University, out-earned Drinan, pocketing $16,000 more. BU enrolls 33,620 undergraduate and graduate students, nearly six times as many as Simmons.

Drinan, who has led the former all-women’s college in the Fenway neighborhood for a decade, is credited with bringing it stability. Her predecessor was at Simmons for only two years.

About $1 million of Drinan’s reported compensation in 2016 came through a bonus plan designed to ensure that she stayed at Simmons and met the governing board’s goals, said Jeremy Solomon, a spokesman for the university.


“These goals were significant and demanding, including far-reaching targets for finance, enrollment, fund-raising, and other strategic imperatives,” Solomon said. “Under president Drinan’s leadership, Simmons has achieved significant financial strength with diverse sources of revenue.”

During that time, Drinan established Simmons’s online graduate programs and completed the school’s largest fund-raising campaign, bringing in $100 million, Solomon said.

The deferred compensation plan was part of Drinan’s previous five-year contract and had to be reported cumulatively when the term ended in 2016, making her compensation particularly high that year, Solomon said.

Drinan’s base salary of about $500,000 was in line with colleges of Simmons’s size, he said.

But for many presidents, the base salary is just the starting point. Many boosted their take-home pay in 2016 with bonuses and other compensation, sometimes by as much as $1 million, according to the report.

Raymond D. Cotton, a lawyer who works with college boards and presidents on contract negotiations, said that when he first started in the industry in the 1980s, pay agreements were one-page documents.

“Now they range from 10 to 15 pages with attachments,” said Cotton, with the Washington, D.C., law firm Nelson Mullins. “Nowadays, they have a lot of bells and whistles.”

Increasingly, private company executives have taken seats on college boards and brought with them compensation practices that are common in the business world. Deferred compensation packages such as Drinan’s are common and act as “golden handcuffs” to retain presidents, Cotton said.


According to the report, many private college presidents also saw large payouts as a result of deals when they were pushed out of their positions.

Starr, the former president of Baylor University, skyrocketed to the top of the Chronicle’s list in 2016, earning nearly $5 million in large part due to a severance agreement he negotiated as part of his departure. Starr was demoted from his role as president and then left Baylor in 2016 over concerns that the school failed to appropriately address sexual-assault allegations and discouraged students from reporting these acts when they involved Baylor’s football players.

Margaret McKenna, the former president of Suffolk University, also received a severance package in 2016 amounting to $267,500, according to the report.

McKenna was fired after a high-profile fight with the school’s board of trustees. Some board members accused McKenna of lavish spending and being short-tempered with university employees. But McKenna said at the time that she was pushed out because she challenged long-entrenched interests at the school and a board that didn’t understand good governance.

McKenna’s total compensation package for her final year at Suffolk was $658,440, according to the report.

The Chronicle analyzed presidential salaries of the top 500 institutions with the largest endowments. The publication compiled its data on university president earnings from the latest nonprofit filings that the institutions made to the Internal Revenue Service.

Overall, the number of private college presidents earning at least $1 million continues to rise, according to the report. In 2015, the millionaires’ club included 58 college presidents. The next year, membership had expanded to include 61 presidents. Only 12 public university presidents made more than $1 million during 2016, according to the most recent data from the Chronicle.


The Chronicle’s annual survey data precede the election of President Trump. But in recent years, how private colleges make and spend their money has come under increased scrutiny. Last year, Trump signed into law a tax plan that levies a charge on the universities with the largest endowments, including many of the nation’s premier institutions.

Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes