Although many Americans believe their universities are places where administrators and faculty members coexist on a fairly equal basis, the reality is that this is far from the case.
According to recent surveys by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 35 private university presidents and 4 public university presidents topped $1 million in total earnings during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Among the public university presidents, Graham Spanier of Pennsylvania State University received $2.9 million for that year, followed by Jay Gogue of Auburn University ($2.5 million), E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University ($1.9 million), and Alan Merten of George Mason University ($1.9 million). Overall, the presidents of public universities -- the poor relations of their private university counterparts -- had a median annual total compensation of $441,392.
This very substantial income does not include many additional perks. According to the New York Times, President Gee is known for "the lavish lifestyle his job supports, including a rent-free mansion with an elevator, a pool and a tennis court and flights on private jets."
Moreover, despite hard times, including pay cuts, for many Americans, university presidents are rapidly increasing their income. President Gogue's annual earnings soared from $720,000 to $2.5 million in a single year. Between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the number of public university presidents in the $600,000 to $700,000 income range jumped from 13 to 28.
Of course, it might be argued that they "earned" these hefty incomes through superior performance on the job. But is this true?
President Spanier, whose $2.9 million income in 2011-2012 made him the best-paid public university president in the United States, resigned his post in November 2011. His resignation came five days after the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach, on child sex abuse charges -- charges that sparked nationwide outrage over that university's failure for nearly a decade to alert law enforcement authorities to alleged sexual assault on campus. Spanier was himself charged criminally in an alleged cover-up of Sandusky's crimes, although he continues to maintain his innocence.
In most cases, however, the bloated incomes of university presidents result from their fundraising prowess. President Gogue, whose $2.5 million compensation placed him second to Spanier, was lauded by Auburn University officials for his close relationship with business leaders. "In basic financial terms," a university spokeswoman explained, "the return on investment is remarkably high." Similarly, Hollis Hughes, Jr., the president of Ball State University's board of trustees, justified the huge income of Jo Ann Gora, the university president -- who, at just under $1 million income placed fifth in the financial ranking of public university presidents in 2011-2012 -- on the basis of her success at fundraising.
Cultivating corporate and wealthy donors, of course, has long been a major task of university presidents, but it has become an obsession in recent years, especially as state governments have cut back funding for public universities. Over the course of a decade, the nation's largest public university system, the State University of New York, has gone from a situation in which the state paid 75 percent of the university's costs and student tuition paid 25 percent to exactly the reverse, in which state support covers 25 percent of costs and student tuition covers most of the remainder. In these circumstances, public universities are desperately seeking to attract financial support from corporations and the wealthy, with obvious consequences when it comes to rewarding the top fundraisers and setting campus priorities.
Meanwhile, faculty members are left out in the cold. Despite the fact that most faculty at public universities have many years of graduate education, doctoral degrees, publications, and years of teaching experience, their average annual salary is just over $80,000 per year. These, of course, are the full-time, "regular" faculty. Part-timers, a talented but cheap labor force who administrators are increasingly substituting for full-timers, are paid, at best, a few thousand dollars per course. Thus, even when they shuttle from campus to campus, cobbling together the equivalent of a full course load, they are so impoverished that they qualify for food stamps. These part-timers and other "contingent" faculty -- large numbers of low-paid, full-time educators in temporary positions, without job security -- today constitute the vast majority of people who teach at American colleges and universities.
Nor do faculty salaries seem likely to rise very much. At the State University of New York, the faculty and other professional staff are now voting on a new, five-year contract with the state that will provide them with a salary raise of about 1 percent a year -- a raise that, when inflation is taken into account, will actually give them a salary reduction. Although United University Professions, their faculty/professional staff union that engaged in tough, lengthy contract negotiations with the state, fought until the end for a minimum salary for part-time faculty, state negotiators -- loyal to Governor Andrew Cuomo's hostile approach to public sector workers -- adamantly refused to consider it. Consequently, although top administrators can (and will) be paid increasingly outlandish amounts, there will be no salary floor for those who do the teaching and research.
On university campuses, it seems, everyone is equal. But some are much more equal than others.
Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "What's Going On at UAardvark?" (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life. An earlier version of this article was published on huntingtonnews.net.