The Biggest Dipper

The man receiving the highest public pension in the State of New York is at the same time a state university official, earning a salary which is even larger than his extraordinary pension.

On Wednesday, The Empire Center released a list of the 100 retirees receiving the highest public employee pensions in the State of New York. Topping the list was George M. Philip, who retired on November 7, 2007 after 36 years at the NYS Teachers Retirement System (NYSTRS) with an annual pension of $261,037. That sum is $55,453 per year more than the second highest pensioner in the state received.

Philip started at NYSTRS in 1971 as an information representative and was promoted frequently by the agency, eventually becoming both executive director of the fund - one of the 10 largest public retirement funds in the nation, with more than 400,000 members and managed assets of $105 billion - and its chief investment officer. Serving in these dual roles for 12 years until his "retirement" three years ago, Philip was paid a combined salary of $379,600 - more than twice the $179,000 Governor Paterson earns.

The $261,037 annual pension is calculated on the basis of his final combined salary at NYSTRS, which was $379,600. The pension is received on top of the $280,000 salary he gets for his current position at the State University. Philip, who received both his B.A. (1969) and M.A. (1973) from SUNY-Albany, was appointed head of his alma mater after serving 18 months as the university's interim president. Philip, who does not hold a Ph.D. degree as most university presidents do, also received a J.D. degree from the Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts. SUNY-Albany does not have a law school.

Philip enrolled in the Employee Retirement System on September 1st, 1969, though it is not clear from Philip's bio on SUNY-Albany's website what he did between his graduation from college in 1969 and his joining NYSTRS IN 1971. From 1970-1976, during the latter years of the Vietnam War, Philip found a place in the New York Army National Guard, but a representative of the New York State Division of Military & Naval Affairs said that Philip would not be eligible for a state pension based upon his service. He did not re-enlist when his six-year term expired. Mr. Philip is also on the board of directors of U.S. Airways Group and First Niagara Financial Group, according to

When we called Mr. Philip's office to ask to speak to him, we were referred to the college's media office, which told us that he had declined to comment. That is understandable. He could, however, defend his compensation. If he ran the retirement system honestly and competently, without outside income or placement agents, he would be worth what we paid him. He chose not to speak.

His selection as the university's president was the result of an unusual situation. The popular president of SUNY-Albany, Kermit L. Hall, died tragically on August 13, 2006 at the age of 61 while swimming with his wife (who survived) near their summer home in Hilton Head, South Carolina. In 1992, Hall was one of five Americans who served on a board that studied and released documents pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, according to The New York Times.

The names Kermit and Hall both appear as members of the extended Roosevelt family; Kermit was a son of Theodore Roosevelt, and Anna Rebecca Livingston Ludlow Hall Roosevelt was the mother of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who married Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 17, 1905. The wedding date was set so that the bride could be given away by her uncle, Theodore, whose office was in Washington but who traveled to New York for the ceremony. Eleanor Roosevelt, the bride, had a brother named Hall Roosevelt.

After the untimely death of Kermit Hall, the provost, Dr. Susan Herbst was designated as officer in charge of SUNY-Albany. Dr. Herbst resigned in October 2007 to become executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the university system of the State of Georgia. Mr. Philip was then chosen as Interim President, a title Dr. Herbst did not receive, in which capacity he served for eighteen months before the trustees of the State University of New York promoted him to the presidency on June 16, 2009.

We do not know whether Mr. Philip is worth $541,037, plus fringe benefits. We wonder whether any other university deans or scholars were available for the presidency of SUNY-Albany during the three years the position was left vacant after Dr. Hall's untimely passing. We believe that what happened here was perfectly legal under existing statutes. An attempt to modify the pension could well be unconstitutional, or at least one could find a federal or state judge (all prospective pensioners) to decree so.

We do question whether during a time of cutbacks and layoffs, individuals should receive such substantial lifetime payouts from the State of New York. We question whether Mr. Philip was named president because of his academic credentials, or because he was an insider who knew the people who counted. We ask how many people he helped, properly, in his positions at the Teachers Retirement System. Who helped him?

The presidency of a major division of the State University, located in the capital of the Empire State, should be a position sought by the ablest people in the academic world. Is the major domo of the Teachers Retirement System the best New York can do? Should his/her horizon be broader than Albany?

We come to no conclusion on the merits of Mr. Philip, or of the practice of double dipping on this grand a scale. We think these matters need serious thought. We encourage you to consider them. If you have specific information, please let us know promptly so we can advise our readers. If you have opinions, send them to us for our website.