The $450,000 in annualized salary that E. Gordon Gee makes as West Virginia University's president may strike some people in that state as a pretty comfortable sum on which to live.
Even so, it's a pittance next to the $6.1 million -- most of it in deferred compensation and severance -- that Mr. Gee made the previous 12 months during his final year as Ohio State University's president, according to a just-released survey of presidential pay by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The $6,057,615 that Mr. Gee, 70, made in fiscal year 2012-13, including $851,303 in base pay, made him the highest compensated that year of any public campus leader in the nation, The Chronicle reported.
In fact, no public university president in the survey's history has received as much in one year.
Released Sunday, The Chronicle report noted that most public campus leaders made far less in 2012-13, with median compensation totaling $478,896 and median base pay totaling $403,496. But The Chronicle also said the number of million-dollar-plus earners continues to grow, and that Mr. Gee's large payout at the end of his tenure reflects a pattern at top-tier universities.
The three highest-paid individuals surveyed "all earned hundreds of thousands of dollars on their way out the door of their institutions," said Sara Hebel, a senior editor at The Chronicle. "Their pay packages speak to how ending a well-paid presidency often itself comes at a high cost to colleges."
That's true even when the departures are abrupt.
For instance, Mr. Gee abruptly announced his retirement from Ohio State last year amid controversy that included remarks about Catholics. The previous year, the highest earner in The Chronicle's public college survey at $2.9 million was former Penn State University president Graham Spanier, who departed in November 2011 amid fallout from the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal on campus.
Mr. Gee was president emeritus of Ohio State last fall when it was announced he would return to WVU, which decades earlier gave him his first presidency.
In a statement issued on his behalf Friday in response to The Chronicle survey, Mr. Gee said:
"I don't work as a university president for the salary. Those are set by boards. My service as a university president is truly a calling, and in the case of West Virginia University, it is a way of paying forward for the opportunities I was provided as a young president at the age of 36."
Mr. Gee has been in office since January, and a new contract in July is expected to pay him comparably to the $775,000 his predecessor, Jim Clements, received. Of that sum, $125,000 will be paid by the WVU Foundation through a donor-established fund, foundation and WVU spokesmen said.
That income still is less than what Mr. Gee would have made had he continued as Ohio State's emeritus president without taking his new job, said WVU's board of governors chairman, James W. Dailey II.
Ohio State, meanwhile, said it estimates it will save $4 million through 2018 due to Mr. Gee's decision to accept the permanent presidency at WVU.
The Chronicle analyzed pay data for 256 leaders of 227 public colleges and systems for the fiscal year that at most campuses ended June 30, 2013. Some leaders began or ended their tenures during the survey period, so in some cases, two leaders from the same campus are included.
Prior to 2006-07, no chief executives of public colleges made more than $1 million. But by this year, the survey counted nine, including Mr. Gee, up from four in 2011-12 and three the year before that, The Chronicle reported.
Six of the 10 highest paid are no longer presidents of those institutions.
After Mr. Gee, the second highest earner in the survey was Texas A&M University's former president, R. Bowen Loftin, with total compensation of $1,636,274.
Next came North Dakota University System's former head, Hamid A. Shirvani, at $1,311,095; Renu Khator of the University of Houston main campus at $1,266,000 and Sally Mason of the University of Iowa at $1,139,705.
Rounding out the top 10 in total compensation were Michael McRobbie, Indiana University at Bloomington, $1,111,924; former University of Georgia president Michael Adams, $1,074,869; the former University of South Alabama head, V. Gordon Moulton, $1,072,121; University of Michigan's Mary Sue Coleman, $1,037,357 and the former University of California system head, Mark Yudof, at $857,085.
In The Chronicle's most recent survey of private college presidents, 42 had total earnings over $1 million, the highest of which was the University of Chicago's Robert Zimmer at $3.4 million. But that survey is based on calendar rather than fiscal year, and Chronicle editors said they discourage direct comparisons between those earnings and what public campus leaders make.
In Pennsylvania, seven public campus leaders were included. Mark Nordenberg, who will step down as chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh on Aug. 1 after nearly two decades in office, was the highest paid. His total compensation of $649,600 in 2012-13 included $580,000 in base pay, placing him 43rd in the national survey and fourth highest among 11 universities identified by The Chronicle as similar to Pitt, among them Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Connecticut.
Next highest paid in this state was former Penn State president Rodney Erickson, whose $618,220 in total compensation for 2012-13 included $571,668 in base pay.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG. First Published May 18, 2014 6:00 PM