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.
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Jessica Bryant
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Updated on October 26, 2023
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  • 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.”

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"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 2020 shows that the five highest-paid university presidents all lead private institutions. The top five reveals a variety of compensation packages that are common among university presidents as a whole.

5. Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University

Compensation: $3,536,821

Jerry Falwell Jr. served as Liberty University president from 2007 to 2020. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded the institution in 1971. Falwell Jr.'s exit from the university was shrouded in controversy, after worrying rumors about his personal life became public. He formally resigned as president in August 2020 and has since sued the institution with claims that he is owed $8.5 million in retirement benefits. A recently amended version of his lawsuit also alleges sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement by other university leadership.

In his last year at Liberty, he had a base pay of $830,364 and earned the remainder of his $3.5 million compensation through bonus pay, other pay, and nontaxable benefits.

4. Steven H. Kaplan, University of New Haven

Compensation: $3,678,322

Kaplan served as university president of New Haven from 2004 until 2022 when he became the institution's chancellor. Throughout his nearly 20 years at the helm, his compensation fluctuated greatly but reached an all-time high exceeding $3.6 million in 2020.

During the year, Kaplan had a base pay of $681,267. The remainder of his compensation was earned through other pay and nontaxable benefits, which accounted for more than 81% of his total compensation.

3. Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Compensation: $4,233,291

Jackson, the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), was the highest-paid female university president in 2020. She began her 23-year tenure in 1999 and officially stepped down in July 2022 to become a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board and a Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Though Jackson has a rich history as the first ever Black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in any field from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), her tenure at RPI became the subject of controversy after a 2006 disbanding of the school's Faculty Senate which led to an almost-passing vote of no confidence.

2. Charles F. Monahan Jr., Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS)

Compensation: $4,489,275

Monahan Jr. served as president of MCPHS for 23 years, beginning his tenure in 1997 and retiring in January 2020. During his time as president the institution transformed from a regional pharmacy college into a multi-campus health care university with more than 7,000 students and over 100 degree and certificate programs.

Despite leaving his post at the start of the year, Monahan Jr. earned $4.48 million as president in 2020 with a base pay of just $37,583 while his other pay combined with nontaxable benefits exceeded $4.45 million.

1. Stephen K. Klasko, Thomas Jefferson University

Compensation: $8,435,657

Klasko began his time as president of Jefferson in September 2013 and retired in December 2021. During his tenure, the university expanded from a one-campus, health sciences university into a professional institution with multiple campuses.

In 2020, Klasko's base pay was over $1.9 million. He earned the rest of his compensation in bonuses, other pay, and nontaxable benefits, which together accounted for 76% of his total compensation that year.

Not only is Klasko the highest-paid university president in 2020, but his total pay for the year nearly doubled, rising approximately 92% from the $4.3 million he earned the previous year.

Feature Image: Leon Bennett / Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment