April 3, 2011; Source: Chronicle of Higher Education | If he had seen the total compensation of Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee, Mel Brooks might have  said, “It’s good to be a university president.” Gee’s total cost of compensation for 2009-2010 was $1.8 million, topping the list of presidents’ salaries at 185 public universities in 2009-2010. Not bad work if you can get it, especially as OSU and other public universities face pressures to cut costs –but apparently not top executive salaries. At $1.8 million for Gee, Ohio State pays twice as much for its top guy than the University of Washington pays for university president Mark Emmert who ranked second in the list.

Gee’s compensation package, expected to reach $2.1 million, is substantially higher than the median total compensation of all public university presidents in 2009-2010 – $375,442. Gee’s paycheck is a tiny part of OSU’s $4.8 billion budget, but a salary of seven figures always catches the attention of state legislators.

Million dollar higher ed salaries in public universities will attract criticism. Dean Zerbe, former senior counsel and tax counsel to the Senate Finance Committee when it was chaired by Charles Grassley (R-IA), noted that salaries like Gee’s “could become a symbol of misplaced resources” comparable to the “$800 hammer” that became the avatar of wasted defense spending some years ago.

Some might say that these hefty compensation packages are handed out to catch up with private colleges. A survey of private college presidents released last fall revealed 30 presidents receiving a million or more in 2008-2009. Among the names were John R. Brazil of Trinity University in Texas ($2.28 million), R. Gerald Turner of Southern Methodist University ($2.77 million), John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac ($1,85 million), and Walter D. Broadnax of Clark Atlanta University ($1.16 million). Broadnax’s salary at Clark Atlanta was a source of controversy as the university had to fire faculty and staff due to financial problems while Broadnax’s compensation rose.

The various universities surveyed offered several tortured justifications of the salaries, but the end result is that kids (or their parents) are paying ever-higher college tuitions while university presidents are taking home more than comfortable paychecks. With university boards comprised largely of wealthy business people accustomed to higher salaries, the trend looks likely to lead to more million dollar compensation packages unless something happens to stop it.—Rick Cohen