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Despite economy, private university presidents’ salaries rise to over $1 million

Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University is the 51st highest-paid university exectutive, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Cohon received an estimated $733,000 in salary and benefits last year, which is about $100,000 higher than the average compensation for his position. This was a 24 percent increase over his previous year’s wages. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Assistant Photo Editor) Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University is the 51st highest-paid university exectutive, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Cohon received an estimated $733,000 in salary and benefits last year, which is about $100,000 higher than the average compensation for his position. This was a 24 percent increase over his previous year’s wages. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Assistant Photo Editor)

In a recent survey published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the median presidential pay at private American colleges and universities for fiscal year 2008 was $358,746, a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year. Presidents at major research universities, such as Carnegie Mellon University, did even better, with a median compensation package of $627,750, which is 5.5 percent higher than the previous year’s pay.

Surprising to some, particularly in these tough economic times, 26 colleges and universities reported paying their chief executives more than $1 million in total compensation. Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, topped the list with a total pay package of almost $1.6 million. Just behind Jackson were David J. Sargent, president of Suffolk University, and Steadman Upham, president of University of Tulsa, who each took home almost $1.5 million. Upham’s pay deserves particular notice in that it was more than triple the amount he had received the year before.

It may ease some students’ concerns, though, to know that Jared L. Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University, is not among the 26 presidents receiving more than $1 million, and the Chronicle of Higher Education ranks Cohon as only the 51st highest-paid university top executive, just above John L. Hennessy of Stanford University and below Stuart Rabinowitz of Hofstra University. Nevertheless, the article also reports that Cohon received an estimated $733,000 in salary and benefits last year, roughly $100,000 above the median compensation for his position and a nearly 24 percent increase over his pay package the previous year.

A 24 percent increase may seem hefty, but when asked for comment, Cohon emphasized the importance of understanding the context of his raise. “The [Board of] Trustees wanted to bring my salary more in line with presidential salaries at the 31 peer universities with which they compare my salary. In that group, my salary is one of the lowest and below the 25th percentile. Thus, they gave me a 15 percent raise in my base salary to about $535,000 with the rest of the increase due to increased benefits,” explained Cohon in an e-mail message. “In all other years, my raise has been no larger than the average staff raise.”

As reported in the article’s survey, full professors at Carnegie Mellon earned on average approximately $136,000 in the 2008–09 school year, a 3 percent increase over their salaries in the previous year. Associate professors received average compensation of approximately $98,500, only a 2 percent increase over their prior salaries.

It’s no news that student tuition and costs at Carnegie Mellon have risen along with faculty and executive compensation packages. According to Carnegie Mellon’s admissions department, undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2009–10 school year are $40,910. Admissions estimates that the combined cost of tuition with room and board comes out to approximately $50,640, breaking the $50,000 milestone for the first time. Adding in the required $610 activities fee brings the total cost of attendance up to $51,250, making Carnegie Mellon the seventh most expensive school in the United States.

Teresa Thomas of the university’s media relations department, however, defends rising student costs. “[The] tuition increase was 2.94 percent and [the] full cost of attendance increased 2.93 to 2.95 percent depending on what year you entered CMU. This was the lowest increase in decades,” she said. “More than 51 percent of Carnegie Mellon students receive some form of financial aid.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s data on presidential pay was derived from tax documents for fiscal year 2008, a period ending before the devastating Wall Street collapse last year. In addition, many university presidents’ pay packages were set at even earlier dates. President Cohon stated, for example, “The reported salary was for fiscal year 2008, i.e., from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. That salary was set by the Board of Trustees in May 2007, obviously more than a year before the beginning of the financial crisis.”

Jeffrey Selingo, a Chronicle of Higher Education editor, also explained, as quoted in an article published by the New York Times, “[These] pay packages were set before the economic crisis began last fall. Since then, many presidents have taken pay cuts, donated part of their pay in scholarships, or had their pay frozen. Next year, it’s likely that we won’t see many presidents getting big raises.”
Likewise, President Cohon stated that neither he nor any faculty or staff at Carnegie Mellon has received any raises during the current year.