December 4, 2008

Skorton Forgoes a Salary Increase in Light of Economy

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Cornell, like other universities across the country, is being forced to adapt to the recent economic crisis. In response, the administration has instituted a 90-day construction pause and a non-professional hiring freeze to limit expenses. But despite the conserve-and-cut mentality that has gripped students and universities alike in the wake of the economic meltdown, university presidents across the country are earning more than ever.
The results of a survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that “median pay and benefits rose 7.6 percent in 2007-8, to $427,400, for the leaders of 184 public research universities.” The survey also found that many private institutions increased the salaries for their presidents. Even presidents with traditionally lower salaries like the public research universities and community colleges have increased their presidential salaries.
President David Skorton received $730,604 in total compensation in 2006-7. It is the combination of $516,223 in pay and $214,381 in benefits. More recent information was not available, though the trend would suggest that his salary likely increased in 2007-08.
Since the economic crisis began to unfold in September, university presidents across the country have put their leadership skills to the test. Some had to put a halt on the escalation of their own salaries.
In light of the state of the economy, Skorton told Peter Meinig, chairman for the Board of Trustees, he does not want the Board to consider an increase in his salary.
“I think [Skorton’s pledge not to take an increase in salary] is very, very admirable,” Meinig said.
The Chronicle reported that presidents from the University of Connecticut, Rutgers University and the University of Louisville “have either waived bonuses or donated them back to their institutions.”
President Michael Hogan of the University of Connecticut refused to accept a performance bonus of approximately $100,000. James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, decided to forgo his six-figure bonus and opted to take the same $700 raise that everyone at the university received. President Richard McCormick of Rutgers University accepted his $100,000 performance bonus but negated it shortly afterward by donating $100,000 back to the university for financial aid.
Out of the six Ivy League schools listed in The Chronicle’s survey, Skorton ranks second lowest among Ivy League presidents in total compensation. Only Dartmouth College’s president James Wright makes less than Skorton with a total compensation of $569,761. The highest listed Ivy League presidential total compensation was Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger at $1,411,894.
Skorton said he understands the careful examination of presidential salaries that is going on throughout the country.
“I welcome the scrutiny that the salaries of university presidents invites. These are complex jobs that are generously compensated. Carefully monitoring is the responsible thing to do,” Skorton stated in an e-mail.
According to Meinig, Skorton’s salary is targeted to be around the median of other peer institutions.
“The president is very comfortable with that,” Meinig said about Skorton’s attitude toward how his salary is determined.
Director of Press Relations Simeon Moss ’73 added that Cornell is required by law to use outside market data to make sure that the salaries for all the highest paid staff are reasonable.
A president’s salary may reflect the unique features of a particular university, and Meinig claimed that there are different factors at each institution that cause the discrepancy in salary.
For instance, while Skorton may have a higher salary than Wright, Cornell has an undergraduate student body of approximately 9,405 more students than Dartmouth.
The president of Suffolk University, David Sargent, makes the most of any university president in the country listed in The Chronicle’s survey with a total compensation of $2,800,461. A number of factors determine his total compensation. Sargent has worked at Suffolk University for 52 years, serving as president for the last 20 of those years. His salary for 2006-7 was much larger than in past years because after 2005 he was considering retirement. The Suffolk University Board of Trustees not only believed Sargent was underpaid up until 2005, but also thought a large increase in salary would help persuade him to continue serving as president rather than retire.
Skorton’s performance is also taken into account in determining his salary. He sets certain short-term and long-term goals, and part of his salary is based on his accomplishment of those objectives.
The actions taken by some university presidents did not go unnoticed. On the MetaEzra website, Matthew Nagowski ’05 called for Skorton to follow suit and take a pay cut.
“In dear times like these, that [Skorton’s $730,604 total compensation] strikes us as a bit high. Skorton should set out enough of his salary to support the full tuition of four undergraduates, say $150,000 a year,” Nagowski wrote.
According to Meinig, Skorton has taken “quiet actions” since he became president of Cornell and since the recent economic crisis that deal with these issues. Meinig claimed that Skorton’s quiet way of acting was very indicative of his character.
For example, two years ago, Skorton and his wife Robin Davisson, made a six-figure pledge to the University’s $4 billion Capital Campaign.