Ken Hare In Depth: Tuition zooms, bonuses roll in for state coll - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: Tuition zooms, bonuses roll in for state college presidents

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

At a time when rising costs have many students struggling to attend Alabama's flagship universities, the University of Alabama and Auburn University are handing out millions of dollars in bonuses to their top administrators.

There is something unseemly about the state's public college presidents -- already well paid when compared with their peers at state-supported universities around the nation -- getting bonuses while the costs of attending their institutions are far outpacing the rate of inflation.

More than a year ago, I wrote a column about how handsomely the presidents of some of Alabama's taxpayer-supported public colleges were paid. At that time, the presidents of Alabama's largest public universities were all in the top 38 in pay out of 199 college presidents in similar institutions around the nation.  (See below for more up-to-date rankings.)

And this was in Alabama, a state that ranks 46th in per capita income.

Still, I also noted in that column that there did not seem to be much public concern -- and certainly no public outcry -- over those relatively high compensation packages.

But I did predict that as tuition and other costs skyrocketed, that lack of controversy over presidential pay "may not last."

The backlash may have started. This week, al.com reported that "top executives for the University of Alabama System and Auburn University have received more than $3.5 million in bonuses over the past five years while student tuition has increased about 40 percent."

According to the website, Auburn President Jay Gogue got a bonus of $1.8 million in 2012 for fulfilling his initial five-year contract.

Especially troubling is a practice in the University of Alabama System where former presidents continue to be paid after they leave office. According to al.com, the UA System spent more than $1 million in 2012-13 to pay "retreating" executives who had recently left office.

That is on top of the six-figure bonuses the UA System pays its chancellor and the presidents of the three UA campuses each fall.

It's difficult to find data to put the compensation packages of college presidents into perspective, considering the number of public colleges and systems in the nation and the high turnover rate among college presidents. Bonuses and deferred compensation also cloud the picture, since they can make for wide swings in compensation from year to year.

Perhaps the best snapshot of the presidential pay picture is provided by the Chronicle of Higher Education's regular survey of presidential salaries, the most recent of which covered the 2013 fiscal  year.

The Chronicle survey covers only the chancellors of university systems and the presidents of public, four-year research universities -- generally the largest in the nation. That included 255 positions.

Six Alabama public institutions were included in the survey -- the University of Alabama System, the University of Alabama Birmingham, the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama Huntsville, Auburn University and the University of South Alabama.

However, because of turnover during the year, eight top Alabama administrators were represented in the survey.

According to the Chronicle survey, in fiscal 2013:

-- The University of Alabama System  paid Chancellor Robert Witt $725,000, ranking him 25th among the 255 top administrators in the survey.

-- The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa paid President Judy Bonner $655,000, ranking her 40th.

-- The University of Alabama Birmingham paid Interim President Richard Marchase $330,000 for a partial year. UAB also paid incoming President Ray. L. Watts $853,464, ranking him 11th in the survey even though it was for a partial year.

-- The University of Alabama Huntsville paid President Robert Altenkirch $545,000, ranking him 74th out of 255 positions covered by the survey.

-- Auburn University paid President Jay Gogue $733,850, ranking him 22nd among the 255 positions covered by the survey.

-- The University of South Alabama paid retiring President Gordon Moulton $1.07 million, ranking him eighth among the 255 top administrators. Moulton died soon after leaving office. USA also paid Acting President John W. Smith $310,572 in fiscal 2013.

Again, because of bonuses and turnover, this one-year snapshot can be misleading. But it does give a glimpse of the compensation picture for Alabama's public universities.

The Chronicle survey also does not cover those "retreating" presidents in the UA System.  For instance, former President Carol Garrison of UAB left office in August 2012. But according to al.com, she continued to be paid, receiving more than $500,000 in 2013 plus an additional $130,000 bonus for the year which was paid in a lump sum. According to the website, she continued to be paid $25,000 a month in 2014.

Apparently, presidential pay at the public UA system is the gift that keeps on giving -- and giving.

All of these bonuses and pay for already departed presidents at taxpayer-supported institutions would be questionable in and of themselves. But contrast them to what is happening with tuition and fees at these institutions.

From the 2008-2009 academic year through the 2013-2014 academic year, undergraduate tuition and required fees for an Alabama resident rose 47 percent at the University of Alabama. At UAB and UAH they rose 54 percent. At Auburn, it was 47 percent. At USA, it was 50 percent.  That's about four times the overall rate of inflation during that span.

If this pattern continues, pretty soon only the rich will be able to attend Alabama's flagship universities. That might be OK for a private college, but for a public college that is supported by taxpayers that would be decidedly not OK.

Of course, there is a lot more contributing to the increase in the cost of a college education than executive compensation. But such compensation is important symbolically.

So if university trustees truly want to address those costs that are pushing up tuition, one place to start is at the top.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.​ 

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