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Ohio State president takes private jets as $1.9 million pay roils students

Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee lives in a 9,630-square-foot Tudor Revival mansion that was renovated for him, featuring a great hall, pool, elevator and tennis court.

Gee made $1.9 million last year as the highest-paid public university president in the U.S. He also logged $1.7 million in expenses in fiscal 2011, including airfare for trips in private jets, country club dues and fundraising parties at his residence.

“He’s overpaid,” said CJ Jones, 19, a junior public affairs major at Ohio State, whose tuition has risen 9.7 percent during her 2 1/2 years at the university, based in Columbus, the state capital.

“You should want that job for a sense of Buckeye pride. Why do you have to suck so many resources from our budget? I know kids graduating from OSU with $90,000 in debt, and it’s a public university.”

Gee was among 47 administrators, athletic officials and hospital faculty who earned more than $1 million in 2011, according to payroll records compiled by Bloomberg for about 216,000 employees at flagship universities in the 12 most populous states.

Much of the compensation came from non-public sources. Gee’s expenses and home renovations weren’t funded with taxpayer dollars, and his performance justifies his compensation, said Gayle Saunders, a university spokeswoman.

Salaries for the highest-paid public university employees from California to Virginia rose as state appropriations per student fell to their lowest level in a quarter century, faculty pay stagnated and the default rate on student loans hit a 15- year high. Record expenses for higher education are prompting lawmakers to scrutinize how the institutions spend their money.

“There’s a mythology promulgated by people in administration that you have to pay competitive salaries to attract the best people,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, political science professor at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University and author of a book detailing how universities are adding administrators even as state funding drops. “In point of fact, no one can show there is any relationship between what these people are paid and the quality of the work they do.”

The public-university data show that top administrators, coaches and hospital physicians continue to enjoy compensation far above that of the best-paid state employees outside higher education, even as rising tuition squeezes the middle- and lower-class students the institutions are meant to serve. And as officials complain that declining funding from cash-strapped states is forcing them to raise student tuition and fees, university endowments continue to grow.

The data provide previously undisclosed detail about how much university employees earn and where the money comes from.

Unlike other state employees, the best-paid workers in higher education derive some or all of their compensation from non-public revenue such as endorsement deals with product makers, radio and TV appearances and speeches for coaches, patient fees for doctors, and donor gifts and endowments targeted for coaches and top administrators.

Yet a significant share of other university employees’ compensation does come from taxpayers, the data show. According to a Sept. 12 presentation by University of California Provost and Executive Vice President Aimée Dorr to the Board of Regents, 97 percent of the faculty in the system receive at least a portion of their salary, benefits and retirement from a combination of state funding and tuition.

Data compiled by Bloomberg as part of a review of public employee pay in the 12 biggest states includes these flagship institutions -- Ohio State; the University of California at Los Angeles; Florida; Texas; Michigan; Virginia; Penn State; Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Stony Brook in the State University of New York System; the Georgia Institute of Technology and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

All are members of the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of 62 research schools.

The highest-paid at those universities last year was William “Mack” Brown, coach of the University of Texas Longhorns football team, who reaped $5.3 million, as funding per bachelor degree at the university fell to last among a group of schools tracked by the Fort Worth-based Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

About $2.7 million of Brown’s compensation comes from athletics revenue, with $2.6 million from donor gifts specifically designated for coach salaries, according to figures provided by his university.

Brown’s pay is comparable to other top-tier coaches, William Powers Jr., the university’s president, said in a statement.

“Mack’s 147-41 record, four BCS appearances, two national championship game appearances and 2005 national championship have directly driven the Athletic Department’s increased revenue, more than $30 million of which has been used for academic programs, facilities, faculty and libraries since 2005,” he wrote.

The highest-paid public university doctor among the 12 states was employed at Ohio State, with total compensation of about $2 million: Steven Kalbfleisch, a cardiologist and professor of clinical medicine, who came to the university hospital six years ago from a competing hospital with four colleagues as Ohio State sought to establish a world-class heart-care program.

Kalbfleisch, co-author of a book called “The Pocket Guide for Cardiac Electrophysiology,” had regular pay of $658,000, plus $1.38 million in deferred compensation related to his move from the rival hospital, Riverside Methodist.

All his compensation came from patient revenue, according to a breakdown provided by the university.

The deferred compensation was from five years as a one-time payout last year, said a medical center spokesman, David Crawford. Besides his clinical research, teaching and practice responsibilities, Kalbfleisch is director of the medical center’s electrophysiology lab and does outreach on behalf of the center at hospitals around Ohio, Crawford said.

Ohio State president Gee’s base salary of $834,530 is derived from public funds, including tuition, fees and state appropriations, as is $225,000 in deferred compensation that is payable after completion of his term and $100,500 in retirement benefits, according to a breakdown provided by university.

As tuition rose by 3.3 percent at Ohio State in the 2011-12 school year, and 3.1 percent in 2012-13, Gee got raises.

During his annual review, The Ohio State University Board of Trustees voted Nov. 9 to increase his salary by $25,036 and approved performance compensation of $333,812. In 2011, trustees increased Gee’s salary by $16,363 and allotted him performance compensation of $143,179. Both performance increases came from non-public funds.

Gee also enjoys perks not received by other public officials. He lives rent-free in a fully staffed house. He rides private jets, including a $7,191 flight covering the 107 miles from Columbus, Ohio, to Cincinnati, according to expense reports obtained by Bloomberg.

He billed the university for everything from $2,427 for a cabin upgrade during a 2008 alumni cruise in the Baltics to vitamins. School officials said Gee’s expenses are paid by endowments or other non-public discretionary funds, not by tuition or tax dollars.

Gee’s prowess as a fundraiser for Ohio State is part of what makes him so valuable, said Saunders, the university spokeswoman.

“President Gee is one of the most experienced and respected leaders in higher education, having served as a university president for more than 30 years,” Saunders said in an email. “He has been instrumental in moving Ohio State from an excellent public higher-education institution to the eminent model for what public higher education should be for the state and the nation.”

“Since arriving in 2007, President Gee has helped raise $1.6 billion,” she said. “In addition, he has worked to secure $1 billion in new resources over the past two years and has been recognized as a leader in finding alternative revenue to support students, faculty and staff.”

The top-paid public university administrators earned less in 2011 than their counterparts at some private institutions.

The highest-compensated private school president in 2010, the latest year for which figures were available, was J. Robert Kerrey, former head of New York’s New School, whose total compensation was $3.05 million, according to a survey published this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Second place fell to Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the Troy, New York- based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who earned $2.3 million in 2010, the report showed.

As they watch college debt mount, there’s a growing awareness among Ohio State students that Gee makes more than some of his public-university peers, said Thomas Lee, a recent graduate of Ohio State and an organizer at the Ohio Student Association, a student advocacy group.

In 2011, students held sit-ins on campus and marched on Board of Trustee meetings protesting tuition increases.

With assistance from Mark Niquette.

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