Who Are the Highest-Paid University Presidents?

Even as students struggle with rising college costs, university presidents rake in millions amid rapid increases in salaries, bonuses, benefits, and perks.

May 18, 2021 · Updated on May 6, 2022

Who Are the Highest-Paid University Presidents?
  • University presidents' salaries have increased rapidly and are expected to continue rising.
  • Compensation packages often include benefits and perks that can add millions in earnings.
  • Presidents outearn governors and other elected and appointed officials, with far less vetting.

As students find U.S. colleges increasingly unaffordable, university presidents' salaries at public and private schools continue to grow at a rapid pace. Over the last decade, experts have noted significant increases in university presidents' pay that show no signs of slowing down soon.

Beyond the surge in overall compensation, the way in which university presidents get paid also has transformed. What used to be a breakdown of salaries, benefits, and bonuses now includes financial perks and opportunities similar to those given to CEOs of major corporations.

"There are various add-ons [in these contracts] that sometimes aren't even defined," said Judith Wilde, a research professor at George Mason University. "They may include an entertainment allowance, a travel allowance, tuition support for family members, or even spousal pay."

Wilde has studied executive compensation in higher education for years. With her colleague, Jim Finkelstein, she has analyzed approximately 250 presidential contracts.

“Presidents of public universities have higher salaries than any elected or appointed public official. Everyone we’ve looked at makes more than the governor of their state.” — Judith Wilde, Research Professor at George Mason University

"What I find most fascinating is that presidents of public universities have higher salaries than any elected or appointed public official," said Wilde. "Everyone we've looked at makes more than the governor of their state. But there is very little vetting that is done in the process of hiring university presidents."

For the most part, universities have not offered much insight into why compensation packages for presidents have become so generous. According to Wilde, most universities think this is simply what has to be offered to get the best leader possible for the institution.

The most recent years' compensation totals show high base pay rates with even higher bonuses and other pay. For most executives, base pay accounted for less than half of their total compensation for the year.

The 5 Highest-Paid University Presidents

The most recently reported data from The Chronicle of Higher Education from 2018 shows that the five highest-paid university presidents lead private institutions. These rapid increases reveal a variety of compensation packages that are common among university presidents as a whole.

5. Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University

Compensation: $3,577,432

Faust was the highest-paid female university president in 2018. She began her tenure at Harvard in July 2007 and officially stepped down in June 2018. During her time at Harvard, she expanded undergraduate financial aid policies and pushed for greater federal funding for scientific research.

Faust's compensation in her early years with the university remained fairly steady, only increasing slightly after a few years.

Her most dramatic pay increases were in 2015 — when she went from $969,830 the prior year to $1.56 million the next — and in her last year at Harvard when she received $3.6 million. The majority of her final compensation package comprised nearly $1.5 million in other pay.

4. Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University

Compensation: $4,518,999

Bollinger is the longest-serving Ivy League university president, with 19 years in office under his belt. His compensation has fluctuated throughout his time at Columbia, reaching an all-time high of $4.6 million in 2013.

While his base pay and bonus pay accounted for a large portion of his compensation that year, the $2.1 million he received in other pay made up 45% of his 2013 total. In 2018, other pay once again accounted for a large part of his total compensation, at $1.86 million.

3. Stephen K. Klasko, Thomas Jefferson University

Compensation: $5,386,357

Klasko began his time as president of Jefferson in September 2013. During his tenure, the university expanded from a one-campus, health sciences university into a professional institution with multiple campuses.

In 2018, Klasko's base pay was just under $1.5 million, and he earned $2.8 million in other pay, accounting for 53% of his total compensation. The remainder of his pay was made in bonuses and nontaxable benefits. His pay before 2018 was unreported.

2. Robert J. Zimmer, University of Chicago

Compensation: $5,976,635

Zimmer has served as UChicago's president for 15 years. Throughout his tenure, he's been touted for successfully leading a $5.43 billion fundraising campaign, accelerating the university's commitment to affordability and increased student aid, and expanding diversity throughout the faculty and student body.

In June, Zimmer will officially step down from his role as president and assume the position of university chancellor.

Zimmer's compensation over the last 15 years has risen steadily, even at a higher rate than the median presidential salary. From 2010 to 2018, his base pay remained within the range of $900,000-$1.3 million, with bonuses, nontaxable benefits, and other pay making up the rest of his total compensation.

In 2018, Zimmer received his largest bonus of $4.12 million in addition to his $1.3 million in base pay and hundreds of thousands in other pay and benefits.

1. C.L. Max Nikias, University of Southern California

Compensation: $7,061,188

Nikias became the single highest-paid university president due to a $7.06 million exit package he received when stepping down from his role in August 2018.

The payout was met with outrage by those who said he mishandled a sexual abuse scandal involving a former campus gynecologist. USC stood by its payout decision, choosing to abide by Nikias' contract to move forward with new leadership.

During most of Nikias' eight-year tenure, his compensation hovered around $1 million; however, there were significant increases in 2015, when he received $1.5 million in bonuses, bringing his total compensation to $3.2 million. In 2017, he earned $697,290 in nontaxable benefits, bumping his compensation to $2.4 million.

Nikias' most notable contributions to USC include leading a $6 billion fundraising campaign that brought in an average of $900 million per year to the institution, and the renewal of the school's sports heritage through an overhaul of the athletic department.

Feature Image: Leon Bennett / Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment