Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
Every year, the Chronicle of Higher Education combs through hundreds of private non-profit colleges' tax forms and releases a list of the top earning school presidents. For 2011, the latest year available, there were some surprises. The president of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, beat out Columbia University's president, coming in third place after the presidents of the University of Chicago and Northeastern University.
Marist College president Dennis Murray, who earned $702,951 in 2010 saw a huge increase the next year, earning $2,688,148 dollars in total compensation. But the salary was an anomaly.
Murray who has run the college for 35 years received a one-time payout from a deferred retirement plan, according to Greg Cannon, chief public affairs officer at Marist College. After 32 years as president, the board didn't want Murray to retire yet.
"As president Murray had great success up to that point in terms of transforming the college and building it into what it is today, and because of that they wanted to make sure they could retain his services," Cannon told WNYC. "This was part of that package that was paid out in 2011, just because that's how it was structured, going back a decade when the president and board anticipated he would retire."
Jack Sterling, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who worked on that list, acknowledged the anomaly but added the list relied on what the institutions reported on their tax forms.
"They were not saying this was part of his compensation between the years 2001 and 2011. All of those hundreds of thousands they were squirreling away from him were showing up in other parts of their tax forms," he said of Marist. "That's different than just about every college of the 500 colleges we rate."
Sterling said a few schools do vie to get their president at the top the list but most don't relish the attention.
"It's never helpful to have your total compensation be among the top; it's just one more arrow in the quiver of your critics," he said.
For example, those calling for the resignation of embattled N.Y.U. President John Sexton may have more ammunition. He was ranked 12th on the top-earners list.