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Margin Notes

What’s a university president worth?

Answer: whatever a university is willing to pay, within reason.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | NOV 10 2009

The Journal de Montreal newspaper ran a story this past Friday, Nov. 6, saying that McGill University Principal Heather Munroe-Blum makes three times more than Quebec Premier Jean Charest — $587,000 for Dr. Munroe-Blum, compared to $175,000 for Mr. Charest.

Those figures are misleading, however. The total for Dr. Munroe-Blum includes a base salary of $358,000 plus $229,000 in other benefits, while the $175,000 for Mr. Charest is simply his base salary. My guess is that Mr. Charest also receives benefits – and I’d be willing to bet they’re greater than those received by Dr. Munroe-Blum.

But I don’t want to get into a game of who’s worth more. The point I actually want to make is that, in a competitive market for top talent, I think it’s fair to say that Dr. Munroe-Blum is worth whatever an institution is willing to pay her. Or, to put it another way, she commands the salary and benefits that her institution believes she deserves based on her experience, knowledge and talent.

Of course, she does work for a publicly funded institution, so that does need to be factored into the equation, because taxpayers are paying for a portion of her salary. And universities — and their students — are facing financial difficulties, so I concede the optics of a high salary are problematic.

But the position of president at a major university is an incredibly demanding job. It is not a position I would relish and I don’t begrudge these leaders their salaries, at least, which strike me as reasonable compared to those of CEOs of similar-sized corporations. (McGill’s operating revenue for 2008-09 was somewhere in the order of $600 million.) As for the additional benefits a university president receives — a house, a car, that sort of thing — are they excessive? I don’t know. I’ll leave that for others to decide.

Here are the base salaries of the heads of Quebec’s other major universities, according to the Journal de Montréal:

  • Judith Woodsworth, Concordia University, $350,000
  • Luc Vinet, Université de Montréal, $339,000
  • Bruno-Marie Béchard (outgoing rector), Université de Sherbrooke, $278,327
  • Denis Brière, Université Laval, $270,000
  • Claude Corbo, Université du Québec à Montréal, $176,871

I’ll leave the last word to Watson Scott Swail, president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute. In his EPI Commentary published the same day as the Journal de Montreal report, he mentioned a new, unrelated report listing the number of college presidents in the U.S. making more than $1 million a year. His comments:

I had some friends email me with their thoughts on that issue. There are two positions: (a) this is outrageous; (b) whatever. I’m with the second group. If Dave Beckham can make $50 million/year, pre-endorsements, for kicking a ball around, if a really overweight defensive tackle can earn a multi-year $100 million contract in the NFL (yes, that would be the Washington Redskins), and if Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees can have a $198 million contract ($33 million/year) …  I’m not sure why we’re really complaining about a CEO of, in some cases, a multi-billion dollar company [a higher education institution] making a seven-digit salary. People balk at a college president getting $300k. Let’s get real. They should be getting that kind of money.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. AR / November 10, 2009 at 14:17

    The problem is that you also need to look at what professors, adjuncts/sessionals and TAs are paid. (And staff, for that matter.) University presidents enrich themselves and those who do the work that makes the university a university make barely enough to get by. And they also have extensive “experience, knowledge and talent”. Why is it acceptable that a handful of folks at universities make out like bandits while the rest get screwed?

  2. Elizabeth / November 11, 2009 at 06:45

    I work at a university in a country that is bankrupt, and where the government has imposed budget cuts across the education sector that have the universities reeling with shock. The only way that public servants (university professors are considered civil servants here) will accept these cuts is if those receiving enormous salaries take their share of the pain. So far, University Presidents have refused to do this. Is it any wonder morale is at an all time low?

  3. SnowPharoah / December 17, 2009 at 12:14

    It seems to me that part of the problem is that all universities in Canada are deeply strapped for cash. I have often thought that over-paying administration has been part of the structural financial problem. University presidents do a lot of important work, no doubt about that, but when they make 6 or 7 times the salary of most profs, there is a structural problem.

    This problem has repercussions in the public view of the university: How can you ask for fee increases, alma mater donations or additional public funding if your president is making half a million a year?