Welcome to the Crazy World of College Presidential Salaries – Part 1

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In a world of skyrocketing college tuition and student debt, the issue of college administration costs has become highly visible—and infuriating—for those footing the college bills. A large part of a higher education institution’s administrative costs come from salaries, including pay for presidents, executive boards, deans, and provosts. But these positions also sometimes come with not-so-straightforward perks, including buyouts upon retirement and significant pension plans. While controversies may seem more likely in private institutions, taxpayer-funded public universities and colleges also have their share of issues. While Massachusetts’ nine state universities are supposed to provide a more affordable option for students, still some administrative salaries are increasing as tuition continues to rise. To gain a simpler view of how such salaries have changed in recent years, the following analysis looks at each university’s presidential salaries over the calendar years 2010 to 2016.

Massachusetts’ state universities, apart from the UMass system, strive to achieve their mission to serve the citizens of Massachusetts and equip at a reduced cost, as “the cost of many Massachusetts and U.S. universities eclipses the resources of even middle class families.”

Massachusetts has seen state income tax cuts in the early 2000s, increasing healthcare costs for employees, and other fluctuations in state costs and revenues. Based on data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association as well as Illinois State’s Center for the Study of Education Policy, MA appropriations for higher education has decreased by almost 19 percent of pre-recession levels in FY07. Public funding for higher education dropped almost 27 percent per student. These funds go directly to community college, state university, and University of Massachusetts campuses to support general operating budgets.

Additionally, since 2001, state scholarship funding has been in steady decline, decreasing by 31 percent from 2001-2017. Most of this funding goes to need-based MASSGrant scholarships for those low-income college students. The Massachusetts Higher Education Finance Commission reported in 2014 that this MASSGrant funding covers a small fraction of the students that it used to, reducing coverage from 80 percent of qualifying student’s higher education costs in 1988 to only 9 percent in 2013.

As a result of these factors, tuition increases have pervaded across MA higher ed institutions. While tuition may increase due to stable changes in costs, many of the state universities have seen larger increases in what they label as “fees”. For example, Salem State University’s year-long tuition for the 2017-2018 academic year is listed at $910 for in-state students, but fees added up to $9,637, making up the University’s $10,547 “tuition and fees” figure listed on their admissions website. In fact, the burden of all higher education costs has substantially risen over the past sixteen years, but the greatest share of the costs lie on state university students.

While these tuition hikes and funding decreases should set the stage for fiscal restraint, administration costs and salaries are on the rise. Looking at changes in presidential annual salary data, the annual pay rate and payment totals fluctuate substantially, but are increasing. The reasons for such fluctuations? One appears to be the revolving door of university presidents.

Figure 1 provides the general direction of annual base salaries for the presidents of each state university, determined by each school’s board of trustees. Based on the median rates in 2010 and 2017, the trend is definitely positive, with median changes at 17 percent increase over this timeframe (indicated by the black dotted trendline). Massachusetts Maritime increased the most (by 49 percent) from 2010 to 2017, despite a large payout to an exiting president in 2015. Bridgewater State increased the least (by 7 percent) within this period, due to former president Mohler-Faria’s resignation and subsequent large payout in 2015, which may skew net change results.

Based on this data, some of the MA state universities have seen steadily rising annual salaries, including Salem State, Worcester State, and Framingham State Universities. However, six of these nine universities have seen major fluctuations over the past six years, and three of these nine schools have had at least three different presidents in this time, sometimes with multiple individuals serving as president at the same time. Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MCAD) has had five presidents in the last six years (seen in yellow above). All nine of these universities have had at least two presidents in the past six years. So why are there drastic changes in their pay grades, either negative or positive? With state funding decreasing over the last 16 years, why are some schools instituting large raises for leadership positions?

To look at changes in pay grades across Massachusetts’ nine state universities, MassOpenBooks.com is an important tool that merges public employee salary data from the Massachusetts Comptroller’s Office as well as the State Board of Retirement. Using a data analysis site provided by the Comptroller’s office, detailed figures on annual pay rates, total pay, and pay end dates are provided in this analysis. To provide a simple look at much more complex and volatile administration costs, I looked at changes in presidential salaries and personnel to gauge a general sense of what is going on at each individual university, under the lens of recent funding cuts and subsequent outcries from these university presidents.

To shine a light on presidential salary raises over time, I analyzed public payroll data from the Office of the Comptroller over the years 2010 through 2016. For each of the nine state universities, I used data on each of the presidents over this period, their total pay, annual pay rate, bonuses and buyout information, and the end of their service as university president.

First, I looked at changes in annual pay rates for each university presidency and each individual president in order to avoid discrepancies because of interim presidents and other unique situations. In Figure 1, the data holds that over the past six years, salaries for the office of university President have been steadily rising, some more rapidly than others.  Marginal changes show that although transitions between personnel may cause fluctuations in salary, overall, presidents are being paid more as time progresses. Percent increases from 2010 to 2016 are given in parentheses in the legend.

While this is a very simplified overview of salary changes, this graph shows that Massachusetts’ state universities increased their presidents’ salaries on average about 3.8 percent from 2010 to 2016. Despite this average, some schools have experienced different levels of salary increases—and decreases—even with various instances of turnover in the office of the president. Massachusetts Maritime Academy saw the steepest net increase in president’s salary (over $70,000 from 2010 to 2016). On average, the yearly raise was 7.4%. Salem State, Framingham State, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) are the next highest in terms of average annual raise, ranking 4.7 percent, 4.3 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively. While year-to-year raises vary, these average numbers fall at or below the average for public college presidents nationally (7 percent).

Although presidents of state universities (like former Bridgewater State president Dana Mohler-Faria and Fitchburg State president Robert Antonucci) have decried the cuts to public higher education, it seems that some higher-level administration positions are not necessarily affected by lack of funding. While moderate and steady increases in administrative salaries are understandable, some fluctuations seem a bit extreme. But as the cost of education is increasingly leveraged onto the backs of students and their families due to public funding decreases, administrative staff like university presidents are still seeing generous raises and buyouts.

Stay tuned for Part 2, with a more detailed look at some of MA’s most interesting state university cases.