College presidents’ salaries on the up and up (and up)

College presidents should receive competitive pay for the work they do. But it’s hard to determine how much is too much — or, put another way, when a university’s trustees are going overboard in lavishing money and perks on the president. Well-established universities tend to justify raising the salaries of their chief executives based on their fat endowments and generous fund-raising numbers. Up-and-coming universities often reward their presidents for jumps in their annual rankings. But even less-respected institutions can justify paying through the teeth for a top manager based on their need for quick improvement.

Unfortunately, it all adds up to higher-than-inflation raises for private college and university heads, while students are getting buried under increasing debt. The link between the president’s compensation and tuition is tenuous at best, but in a time of great student anxiety over finances, colleges and universities must show restraint.

There was good news and bad news in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education survey of the compensation levels of private higher-ed chiefs, based on 2010 data. The median national increase, 2.8 percent, to just under $400,000, was smaller than in other recent reports. And some of the institutions that have been most heavily criticized for giving their presidents lavish pay, such as Suffolk University, pulled back impressively.


But in Massachusetts, the survey found, the compensation for the presidents of Bentley, Curry, Endicott, and Hampshire colleges soared between 24 percent and 37 percent. Among the 36 presidents in the nation making at least $1 million a year, Northeastern’s Joseph Aoun received a 5.2 percent raise to $1.1 million. A spokesman defended the raise by citing record levels of fund-raising and research grants, plus a rise in the US News rankings from 98th to 56th. That might be enough to justify a 5.2 percent hike, but Aoun’s salary is already high enough that he should be able to make out with less.

Last January, in his State of the Union address, President Obama warned universities, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” But no proposal has yet gained traction in Congress to give teeth to Obama’s words. Maybe one isn’t needed. In addition to rewarding fund-raising, research grants, and boosts in rankings, colleges and universities might start paying their chiefs for holding tuition down.