Bienen among nation’s highest-paid presidents

Kirsten Salyer

Northwestern President Henry S. Bienen was the second highest-paid university executive in the nation in 2006, according to a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bienen, who received a total compensation of more than $1.7 million, was second only to David J. Sargent, president of Suffolk University, who received $2.8 million after working 52 years at Suffolk, including two decades as president. The presidents of the University of Chicago and Columbia College also received more than $500,000 in compensation.

A president’s pay in any given year depends on level of seniority, the complexity of the university, the university’s facilities and the university’s prominence, said Paul Fain, a Chronicle senior staff reporter.

“President Bienen is up the list this year,” he said. “But it’s not all that surprising, given he’s stepping down soon and he’s been there a long time.”

The survey applies the university’s most recently available federal income tax form, Form 990, to determine the president’s compensation; NU’s data was collected from the 2006 calendar year. The different pay periods of other universities and varying levels of executive seniority make it hard to compare universities across the board, Fain said.

“This is definitely not apples to apples,” Fain said.

The inclusion of deferred compensation, a way of encouraging valued employees to stay with the university by setting aside money to pay them at a later date, makes Bienen’s income appear misleading and overly high, said Al Cubbage, vice president for university relations.

“There’s a difference between compensation and salary,” Cubbage said. “It’s not that simple.”

In 2006, Bienen’s deferred compensation of $590,929 vested, which meant he received funds he had been promised earlier for staying at NU for more than a decade. At the same time, another deferred investment of $375,000 began. He will receive those funds, if he is still president, on Aug. 31, 2009 – the same day Bienen plans to step down.

Next year, without deferred investments, it will look as if Bienen’s compensation has gone down significantly. In addition, the new president’s salary will start at a lower rate, Cubbage said.

Bienen’s compensation reflects his efforts and performance as president, Cubbage said.

“President Bienen has done a remarkable job,” he said. “He has truly transformed the university in many ways.”

But for Weinberg sophomore Jonathan Green, increasing tuition makes an increase in the president’s compensation “ironic,” he said.

“He’s done a pretty good job,” he said. “But that’s a lot of money.”

The 2006 compensation levels do not reflect the current economic downturn, making increases in presidents’ pay seem unfair, Fain said.

“This is a tricky thing in terms of public perception,” he said. “It’s not going to look good to be making that much money.”

To compensate, some college presidents have decided to take their bonus payments and give the money back to the universities. Richard L. McCormick, Rutgers University president, who accepted a 5 percent pay increase to receive a total compensation of $555,000, donated his $100,000 bonus back to the school. Presidents of the University of Connecticut and the University of Louisville have done the same.

“This was the first year President McCormick agreed to receive a raise in his base pay,” said Greg Trevor, Rutgers University’s senior director of media relations. “He and his wife decided to use his bonus to support financial assistance for undergraduates.”

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