Michael B. Poliakoff doesn’t doubt Eric J. Barron is a top-notch choice to lead Penn State University. But he says Barron’s top-dollar contract—worth up to $6 million over five years—is unconscionable.
“Leadership in higher education at this moment really demands a level of modesty and forgoing high levels of compensation,” said Poliakoff, a vice president at the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington. “This is a time when students and their families are making enormous sacrifices to meet ever-rising tuition.”
Tuition is especially high at Penn State, where trustees this week approved a contract that will pay Barron, 62, a $200,000 “transitional payment” and an $800,000 starting salary when he assumes the presidency by May 12. The school’s annual tuition and fees of about $17,000 make it the second-most-expensive public university for in-state undergraduates, behind only the University of Pittsburgh, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Barron’s compensation will place him among the best-paid presidents and chancellors at public universities in the United States, a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis shows. The Chronicle last year listed only four chief executives at comparable schools whose overall compensation in 2011-12 eclipsed Barron’s forecast salary and bonuses. A $1 million retention payment at the end of his five-year contract, paired with annual retention payments of $200,000 apiece, could bring his average pay to more than $1 million a year.
The lofty figure might irritate state lawmakers who allocated more than $284 million in taxpayer money for Penn State in 2013-14, said Donald Heller, the College of Education dean at Michigan State University.
“There could be some public pushback on it,” said Heller, a former Penn State faculty member. Still, he said school trustees endured a tough presidential search after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and “must have felt, to really convince Eric Barron to come back, they’d have to pay him very handsomely.”
Several Penn State trustees who approved Barron’s contract did not answer questions from the Tribune-Review on Tuesday about how they determined his pay. “The total compensation package for the president is competitive and reasonable when compared to the presidential peer group that was reviewed,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers wrote via email.
Barron, a former Penn State dean and now president at Florida State University, declined to discuss his pay negotiations. Market forces appear to have a stronger hand in contract talks because fewer people want the increasingly stressful job of a public university president, while private schools offer higher salaries, he said.
“So my view is that Penn State is working, as they do in all things … to be consistent and competitive with the top tier of public universities in the nation. I believe that is, in reality, the only compensation story to tell,” Barron wrote in an email to the Trib.
Consultants probably advised Penn State trustees on market research and how similar schools pay their presidents, said John Thornburgh, a senior partner who specializes in college president searches for the Chicago-based firm Witt/Kieffer. He said the university of 98,000 students and $848 million in annual research counts about 20 peers in size and scope.
“On face value, I don’t see his package being out of the ordinary. But I would also say this is above and beyond what a comparison might be with other universities,” Thornburgh said. “Penn State and its next president are facing an enormous challenge in the need to provide stability. In essence, they’re paying a premium for stable, effective leadership.”