Once upon a time, college presidents were venerated as sage, benevolent folks who not only wisely and responsibly nurtured the best and brightest amongst our youth but also presided over welfare-enhancing expansions of human knowledge. Legendary mid-twentieth century college presidents like Clark Kerr at the University of California and Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago have iconic status in American intellectual and cultural history. But, alas, the golden age of higher education is long past. Even among college faculty, how many today know who is the president at, say, Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford?
Moreover, rather than be considered Solomon-like in wisdom and Mother Teresa-like in virtue, college presidents these days are increasingly considered to be somewhat shifty individuals, the kind from whom you would be suspicious of buying a used car. Two former long-serving Big Ten university presidents, Graham Spanier at Penn State and Lou Ann Simon at Michigan State, faced possible jail time for allegedly maladroit actions while president (Simon still does). The University of Oklahoma is trying to deal with the embarrassing claim that long-term recent president (and former U.S. Senator) David Boren was sexually molesting male members of his staff. Baylor forced out famous attorney and former federal judge Kenneth Starr because he did not deal aggressively with inappropriate sexual adventures of prized university assets, namely its football players.
The job tenure of college presidents is becoming more precarious. In a single week recently, four college heads prematurely left their jobs in somewhat mysterious circumstances, at Bennett, Marist and Muhlenberg colleges and Auburn University. The average tenure of a university president was about seven years for a long time; now it is about five years. On top of everything else, the number of presidents losing their jobs because of college closures is mounting as well.
Given the greater risks and falling prestige of the job, it takes more dollars to get good university presidents, and their pay has soared. Probably the dean of American university presidents, Gordon Gee, who has served for well over 35 years as president of five schools, made news for becoming a million-dollar president at Ohio State about a decade ago; now there are dozens of college presidents earning in the seven digits, probably in part given the higher risks/lower job security and the need for the academic equivalent of combat pay. Presidents of major universities in the mid-1990s made perhaps $300,000 or $350,000 annually in todays dollars; they routinely earn double that today.
The job of being a college president has always been tough and is getting tougher. Ideally, a president has good academic credentials, is respected by the scholarly community, is a tremendous fundraiser, is an articulate public spokesperson, is an excellent manager, has inexhaustible energy and political acumen, can bring together persons of wildly diverse perspectives, and mixes a tolerably good sense of humor with much scholarly gravitas. The subset of the American population possessing all of these qualities is somewhere between zero and a very small positive number. Moreover, higher education is no longer a growth industry getting bigger and better every year. Enrollments have been falling nationally for about eight years and public support for colleges has declined by most measures. Given all that, and the fact that the position increasingly has minimal job security, the need to pay higher salaries is understandable.
As the environment for universities worsens financially and in other ways, college presidents become increasingly desperate to put on a good public face, arguing their schools are adroitly fulfilling their academic mission, but needing more funding. This increasingly leads them to make Pollyanna-like statements, trying to hide the truth about, say, falling applications or a precarious financial condition. Hence, they appear akin to sellers of used cars that do not reveal that their vehicle has been in two big accidents, or the home seller failing to disclose that during heavy rainstorms the basement routinely floods. Probably, under the circumstances, we are somewhat too harsh on university presidents for their seemingly unprincipled obfuscation, but given their increasingly very comfortable compensation, perhaps they should expect and even deserve it.