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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  • 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 2019 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. Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania

Compensation: $3,164,829

Gutmann, the eighth president of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), was the second highest-paid female university president in 2019. She began her 18-year tenure at Penn in 2004 and officially stepped down in February 2022 after being confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Germany. During her time at Penn, Gutmann championed affordable education access for low-income and first-generation students, more than doubling the number of these students on campus.

Gutmann's compensation in her early years with the university increased exponentially, then only saw minor shifts between 2013 and 2019.

Her annual pay was often the subject of debate during her tenure, particularly in 2016 when she earned $3.9 million — 20 times the median salary of professors at Penn. In 2020, Gutmann's salary was back in the news after it was announced that she would not be taking a COVID-induced pay cut like many other university presidents, instead opting to take a pay freeze.

4. Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt University

Compensation: $3,173,543

Zeppos served as chancellor of Vanderbilt for 11 years, beginning his tenure in 2008 and officially stepping down in August 2019. His compensation has fluctuated greatly throughout his time at the university, reaching an all-time high of $4 million in 2016.

During that year, Zeppos' compensation became the subject of debate, mainly due to the $2.9 million bonus he received that made up the majority of his pay as the university was facing budget cuts and layoffs.

3. Ronald J. Daniels, Johns Hopkins University

Compensation: $3,239,817

Daniels has been at the helm of Johns Hopkins University for the last 12 years and recently had his contract extended to stay on as president until 2029. As president, Daniels has focused on enhancing student access and reducing barriers to higher education.

In 2019, Daniels' base pay exceeded $1.4 million while the remainder of his pay was earned in other pay and nontaxable benefits, which accounted for nearly 57% of his total compensation.

2. Stephen K. Klasko, Thomas Jefferson University

Compensation: $4,399,407

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

In 2019, Klasko's base pay was over $1.9 million. He earned the rest in bonuses, other pay, and nontaxable benefits, which together accounted for 56% of his total compensation that year.

Despite being the second highest-paid university president in 2019 due to his sizable compensation package for the year, Klasko's total pay in 2019 was an 18% decrease from the $5.4 million he earned the previous year.

1. Paula S. Wallace, Savannah College of Art and Design

Compensation: $5,037,567

Wallace has led Savannah College of Art and Design for over four decades, since founding the institution in 1978. Under her leadership, enrollment more than tripled between 2000 and 2021, and the university's endowment grew to $290 million in 2022 from less than $1 million in 2000.

Since it was first reported in 2013, Wallace's total compensation has typically stayed in the $1 million-$2.5 million range — 2019 was the first year her total pay exceeded $3 million, increasing about 112% from the year before. Wallace's base pay in 2019 was nearly equal to her total compensation package in 2018. Her bonus pay, other pay, and nontaxable benefits accounted for 53% of total pay.

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