Trustees | Costs

How much will Iowa State’s next president be paid? (More than the last one, most likely)

DES MOINES REGISTER   |  October 20, 2017 by Kathy Bolten

Exactly who will be named Monday as Iowa State University’s newest president is anyone’s guess. But one thing is likely — whoever it is will get paid more than their predecessors.

And the contract will likely be filled with more perks.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual survey of public-college leaders’ compensation data, average pay in 2016 for a university president was a little more than $521,000.

When deferred compensation is included, the average pay package is considerably higher.

For example, presidents’ compensation packages at the 10 peer institutions to which Iowa State compares itself averaged $742,060, the Chronicle’s data shows.

Former Iowa State President Steven Leath was earning $650,000 in annual base pay, deferred compensation and bonus pay for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

By comparison, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld’s salary package totaled $790,000 during 2015-16, including deferred compensation.

Consider it the price of doing business for major universities, said Judith Wilde, professor and chief operating officer at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

University president contracts are being increasingly complex, as more conditions and rewards are written into them, she said.

“We’re calling this the corporatization of the presidential contract,” said Wilde, who has worked on an ongoing research project analyzing contracts of university presidents.

“I can argue university presidents deserve big salaries because their students are our next leaders. I don’t know that that job is quite as complex as the president of the United States.”

The U.S. president is paid $400,000 annually (although he receives a lot of perks, free room and board at the White House, for example). Iowa’s governor makes $130,000.

Iowa Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, and ranking member of the education committee, said compensation for Iowa State’s next president likely will reflect the trend in higher pay for private sector executives.

But that doesn’t mean he’s pleased about it.

“The salary of the average worker with a high school education has been stagnant for the last 40 years and not kept up with inflation,” said Quirmbach, an associate professor of economics at Iowa State.

“On the other hand, CEO salaries, including that of university presidents, has grown and grown and grown.” 

President’s salary vs. faculty’s

When Leath was hired in October 2011, his annual salary was $440,000.

When he resigned last spring to take the helm at Auburn University, his base salary was $525,000, a 19 percent increase.

By comparison, since 2012, faculty salaries at Iowa State increased an average of 2.7 percent a year, according to a recent regent’s report. Average pay for faculty members in the fiscal year that ended June 30 was $120,285, the report said.

Across the 221 public university systems nationwide, the average pay for a president increased 5.2 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to a The Chronicle of Higher Education survey.

“The reason for the upward trend is the imbalance between supply and demand,” said Raymond Cotton, a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins and who specializes in higher education-related issues including compensation.

“There is greater demand for less supply, so the price goes up,” he said. “Universities are competing with each other for the best available talent and that drives the price up.”

Sixty-four people — 59 men and five women — applied for the job of president at Iowa State. The four finalists (one dropped out Friday) were interviewed by a 21-member search committee at a Minneapolis-area hotel. 

They include:

  • Sonny Ramaswamy, 65, who since 2012 has been director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. According to, a service of FedSmith Inc., he was paid $179,700 in 2016.
  • Pamela Whitten, 54, who since 2014 has been senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Georgia in Athens. Her annual salary is $420,800, according to her contract.
  • Wendy Wintersteen, 61, who since 2006 has been dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Her annual salary is $309,226, according to her contract.

The Iowa Board of Regents is scheduled Monday to interview the three remaining candidates and select Iowa State’s next president, negotiating a compensation package.

The package is expected to be more generous than Leath’s, although the board could take into consideration the person’s previous experience.

Still, said Cotton, governing boards should not be shy about offering generous compensation packages to their new hires.

“These best people will bring around other best people who that new president will demand delivery of top quality work,” he said. “For boards that start penny-pinching, they’ll lose out on the top talent.”

Shrinking tenure

Although university presidents are being paid more, they’re staying less time, studies show.

The American Council on Education’s 2017 American College President Study showed that current presidents had been in their jobs an average of 6.5 years, two years less than in 2006.

Leath stayed at Iowa State five years. Gregory Geoffrey, Leath’s predecessor, was president for 11 years.

UNI’s former president, William Ruud, left in 2016 after three years. Sally Mason stepped down as president of the University of Iowa in 2015 after eight years in the position.

“Tenure — for me that’s my biggest concern,” said Michael Tupper, 21, an Iowa State junior majoring in agricultural engineering. “I don’t want to see a continuous revolving door of presidents or see someone jump ship because they were offered more money by someone else.

“What we need with our leadership right now is a long-term commitment.”

Tupper said he would support providing a new president a generous compensation package as long as the person “was committed to Iowa State, was experienced and had a clear vision to take us to that next level.”

Iowa State’s enrollment has exploded in the past decade, becoming the state’s largest public university. This fall’s enrollment is 36,321, 35 percent more than 26,856 enrolled in 2008.

The growth has created a need for more student housing as well as concerns about student-to-faculty ratios.

During roughly the same time, state appropriations for Iowa State’s operations have fallen 30 percent with the university getting $3,700 less in state support per resident student than in 2009, Benjamin Allen, interim president, told the regents in August.

The funding cuts have caused delays in filling some jobs and the elimination of others, as well as cuts to travel and other expenses.

Those challenges and others are among the reasons lucrative compensation packages with attractive perks are offered to university presidents, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Compensation packages of many current university presidents include retention bonuses, paid moving expenses, supplemental life and disability insurance benefits and vehicle allowances, she said.

Other common contract features include providing a tenured faculty position to a president who retires or resigns.  

“All of these are mechanisms intended to retain and recruit the most talented people during a time when the average retention rates are rapidly declining,” she said.

Harreld, who was hired as the University of Iowa’s president in 2015, has a base salary of $590,000. And if he fulfills his five-year contract, will also receive $200,000 in annual deferred compensation.

He also received compensation for a vehicle, was reimbursed for his moving expenses, and can seek tenure in the business college when he leaves the president’s job.

Nook, who became UNI’s president earlier this year at an annual salary of $357,110, was provided a vehicle and vehicle insurance, cell phone and laptop computer, according to his contract.

In addition, Iowa taxpayers pay for all utilities at the president’s house on the Cedar Falls campus, as well as cable television, a computer and printer, and local phone service.

“Some of the extra perks make sense,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “It’s important everything pass the smell test. … Boards need to be careful of the kind of image projected to the people the state.”

Still, he cautioned, governing boards contemplating compensation packages for university presidents should keep in mind their state’s median household income, which in Iowa is $54,736.

“These jobs are acts of service,” Poliakoff said. “That doesn’t mean top administrators shouldn’t be properly compensated.

“At the same time, these are institutions that are supported with taxpayer dollars.”


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