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When the Chronicle of Higher Education comes out with its reports on what presidents of private colleges and universities are paid, it usually doesn't take long to find someone from North Carolina. The presidents of both Wake Forest and High Point universities, for instance, have been at or near the top of the list in recent years.

On the Chronicle's list of public university presidents that came out last week, the search for a UNC System leader takes a little bit longer.

The top-paid university leader in North Carolina for calendar year 2018 was Margaret Spellings, the now-departed leader of the UNC System. Her total compensation was $893,631, which included both her base salary ($775,000), a bonus ($95,000) and nontaxable benefits ($23,631), which might have included things like health and life insurance and housing). That ranked her 28th nationally among public university leaders.

Right behind Spellings in 31st place was Carol Folt, the former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor. Her total pay package in 2018 was $869,663. At No. 33 was Randy Woodson, the N.C. State chancellor. His total compensation of $866,723 includes a $200,000 bonus from N.C. State's foundation.

The Chronicle goes only seven deep into UNC System leaders. After the three I mentioned above, the Chronicle's list includes only the chancellors of East Carolina, UNC-Charlotte, UNCG and N.C. A&T, in that order. You can click here and sort by North Carolina to see the seven. Both of the Greensboro chancellors came in right around $400,000 annually.

No. 1 overall for 2018 was William McRaven, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who was the University of Texas System chancellor for 3.5 years. His total pay in 2018 was nearly $2.58 million, which included a bonus of almost $679,000 and a deferred payout of $1.28 million. He left his short term in Austin some $8.2 million richer.

Sixteen other public university leaders cleared the million-dollar mark in 2018. Five of the top seven highest-paid work in Texas, for what it's worth. 

A story (paywalled) that ran with all the numbers notes a trend of "short tenures and big payouts." The current and prior-year charts clearly show the upward trend in salaries, bonuses and the like. The average tenure of a college presidents is just 6.5 years, a decline of two years over the past decade. I've always contended that colleges are generally more corporate than ideological, and here's more evidence from the Chronicle:

"(Michael) Harris (an associate associate professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas) said that one finding of his research on turnover among college presidents between 1988 and 2016 is that 'tolerance for disruption' among members of boards, system offices, and legislatures has grown, a trend he attributed to an increase in the number of people from corporate America holding power in those arenas, especially boards. While such tolerance isn’t inherently bad, Harris said, there can be unintended consequences: If system or board representatives aren’t routinely voicing full-throated support for a president, some constituents may read that as a signal of eventual turnover. Why follow unpopular or arduous marching orders, Harris asks, when you might be able to avoid that burden by outlasting the conductor?"

Other higher ed sources interviewed by the Chronicle note that accrediting and bond-rating agencies aren't usually big fans of rapid turnover in the president's suite. The story also notes that turnover tends to generate its own momentum: 

"The immediate institutional costs of turnover — the hiring of a search firm and the disbursement of a severance package — can have a broader ripple effect across the higher-education sector. When chief executives are fired quickly, it creates a cycle: Soon-to-be presidents are watching. So when they negotiate their next contract, they are incentivized to push for higher salaries and larger severance agreements. All of this only makes the next break-up — and the next loss on investment — even more expensive than the last."

In other words, expect the era of short tenures and big payouts to continue.

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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