University prestige has little influence on leaders’ pay

Ellie Bothwell analyses correlation between vice-chancellors’ pay and university ranking

December 11, 2015
Columbia University
Source: iStock
Columbia University

Thirty-two university presidents in the US earned more than $1 million in 2013. Data published this week by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was the highest-paid university leader in the US, earning a staggering $4.6 million, which included basic salary, bonuses and other compensation.

It is perhaps not surprising that a private Ivy League institution has the top-earning president. But when glancing further down the list, to what extent does presidents’ pay correlate with university prestige (when the latter is judged on position in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16)?

The answer is, not much. While Amy Gutmann, president of University of Pennsylvania (ranked 17th), was the second highest-paid university leader, many lower-ranked institutions are paying millions to their president each year. Yeshiva University (164) president Richard Joel earned $2.5 million, while Scott Cowen, then-president of Tulane University (251-300), took $1.6 million.

When crunching the numbers for the UK, it is a similar story. The highest-paid vice-chancellor in the 2013-14 academic year, based on THE’s annual survey, was Neil Gorman, former leader of Nottingham Trent University (601-800), who earned a total of £623,000, including pension and other benefits. The University of Oxford’s (2) Andrew Hamilton came second, followed by Martin Bean, former vice-chancellor of the Open University (401-500).

Six of the 20 top-earning UK vice-chancellors led universities based in London, perhaps suggesting that location is a stronger influence on pay than prestige. In comparison, four of the institutions in the equivalent list for the US are based in New York.

Almost all of the 20 highest-paid university presidents in the US led private institutions; Pennsylvania State University and Texas A&M University are the only public universities featured, in seventh and 17th place respectively.

Four of the 20 highest-paid university presidents in the US were women, compared with just two in the UK.


Below is a list of the top 20 institutions in the UK and the US ranked by the pay of the vice-chancellor/president, and filtered to include only institutions that feature in the top 800 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16 (on this basis seven US and two UK institutions have been excluded).

The US figures are based on data collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education on the pay of private and public university presidents in the 2013 calendar year.

The UK figures are based on data collected by Times Higher Education on the pay of university vice-chancellors in the 2013-14 academic year.


20 highest-paid university presidents in the US

Rank President University Salary ($) WUR rank US rank
1 Lee Bollinger Columbia University 4,615,230 15 10
2 Amy Gutmann University of Pennsylvania 3,065,746 17 12
3 Richard Joel Yeshiva University 2,503,794 164 57
4 Nicholas Zeppos Vanderbilt University 2,147,452 87 35
5 Scott Cowen Tulane University 1,634,000 251-300 79-91
6 Ronald Daniels Johns Hopkins University 1,629,325 11 7
7 Rodney Erickson Pennsylvania State University at University Park 1,494,603 75 33
8 John Sexton New York University 1,452,992 30 18
9 C. L. Max Nikias University of Southern California 1,422,458 68 32
10 Robert Zimmer University of Chicago 1,337,869 10 6
11 Donna Shalala University of Miami 1,309,328 161 55
12 Shirley Ann Jackson Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 1,304,445 251-300 79-91
13 John Fry Drexel University 1,288,645 351-400 99-112
14 Morton Schapiro Northwestern University 1,211,285 25 17
15 Robert Brown Boston University 1,182,534 64 30
16 Richard Brodhead Duke University 1,159,855 20 14
17 R. Bowen Loftin Texas A&M University at College Station 1,128,957 193 63
18 Richard Levin Yale University 1,119,974 12 8
19 Barbara Snyder Case Western Reserve University 1,092,979 133 50
20 Steven Knapp George Washington University 1,091,805 201-250 64-78


20 highest-paid university vice-chancellors in the UK

Rank Vice-chancellor University Salary (£) WUR rank UK rank
1 Neil Gorman Nottingham Trent University 623,000 601-800 63-78
2 Andrew Hamilton University of Oxford 442,000 2 1
3 Martin Bean The Open University 412,000 401-500 47-58
4 David Eastwood University of Birmingham 410,000 119 18
5 Steve Smith University of Exeter 400,000 93 14
6 Glynis Breakwell University of Bath 395,000 251-300 37-38
7 Craig Calhoun London School of Economics and Political Science 394,000 23 5
8 Christopher Snowden University of Surrey 392,000 251-300 37-38
9 Michael Arthur University College London 391,660 14 4
10 Keith O'Nions Imperial College London 389,000 8 3
11 David Latchman Birkbeck, University of London 388,000 201-250 35-36
12 Keith Burnett University of Sheffield 378,000 97 15
13 David Greenaway University of Nottingham 374,000 143 24
14 Howard Newby University of Liverpool 368,000 157 26
15 Julia King Aston University 357,803 401-500 47-58
16 Nigel Thrift University of Warwick 348,000 80 12
17 Paul Curran City University London 346,000 401-500 47-58
18 Leszek Borysiewicz University of Cambridge 344,000 4 2
19 Jim McDonald University of Strathclyde 334,000 401-500 47-58
20 Michael Driscoll Middlesex University 326,000 601-800 63-78

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Reader's comments (1)

This analysis is way too limited. You will find a more comprehensive analysis that looks at several hundred university heads in the past and shows that academic quality matters in the UK and Australia but not the US. Also, other factors related to that quality matter.

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