In a time of multimillion-dollar budget cuts to higher education and double-digit college-tuition increases, how much money should a university president make?

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In a time of multimillion-dollar budget cuts to higher education and double-digit college-tuition increases, how much money should a university president make?

The University of Washington’s Board of Regents will answer that question Monday when it votes on a contract finalizing its choice of Michael Young, president of the University of Utah, to be the next UW president.

Regents Chairman Herb Simon, who negotiated the contract with Young, wouldn’t say how much the university plans to pay him, only that the contract “will be very fair to President Young as well as to the university.”

In his first public appearance as president-designate last week, Young said he would accept less than his predecessor, Mark Emmert. But even if he took 30 or 40 percent less than Emmert’s base salary, Young would still see a boost to his paycheck.

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Pay is relative to the job, said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue. “You can pay a guy a million bucks a year, and they’re underpaid. You can pay a ferry-ticket collector $49,000 a year, and they’re overpaid.” The difference: “There are only a handful of people in the country that have that skill set” — that is, the skills needed by a university president — whereas almost anyone could collect ferry fares, Tom said.

Still, not every legislator has been sympathetic to that point of view. “There’s a lot of people in the Legislature who don’t think any human being should make more than $70,000 a year,” Tom said.

Emmert’s high salary — he pulled down nearly $1 million a year, including bonuses — was a sore point for some lawmakers, faculty members and the public. In 2009, when the university was cutting services and eliminating hundreds of staff positions, Emmert made The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list as the second-highest-paid public-university president in the country. To some, there was a disconnect between his pay and the school’s budget woes.

But some legislators noted he also headed a fundraising campaign that netted nearly $2.7 billion for the university.

“He (Emmert) raised a lot of money for the institution and he did a lot of good things there,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. Zarelli said he takes more of a “private-sector perspective” on compensation, noting that it’s important to look at the overall market, and offer a competitive salary to lure top people to the job.

“When you have that talent, you have to have an open mind” about what to pay, Zarelli said.

The state has tended to pay its university presidents well. Washington State University President Elson Floyd, who makes $625,000 in base pay, is the highest-paid public official in the state (not counting the Husky football and basketball coaches). As interim UW president, Phyllis Wise makes a base salary of $471,000.

Young’s base salary at the University of Utah is $348,000.

The base salary doesn’t tell the whole story, though. As with many university presidents, Young’s contract included “golden handcuffs” — a retention incentive that was paid after Young had been president of the university for five years, said Randy Dryer, chairman of the University of Utah’s board of trustees.

In 2009-10, Young reached that anniversary, earning a lump-sum $375,000 payout that boosted his salary to $723,000 for that one year, Dryer said.

The retention incentive is funded through private donors, a system that has been in place in Utah since the late 1970s, Dryer said. “It’s a politically sensitive issue, so one way to deal with that is to have nontax money to support the president’s salary,” he said.

Had Young stayed in Utah through July 2012, he would have earned an additional incentive of several hundred thousand dollars, Dryer said. The extra money “has worked in the past” to keep presidents at the university, but “it didn’t work this last time,” he said, laughing.

Emmert, whose base pay was $620,000, had a similar arrangement. He earned $250,000 in deferred compensation yearly, paid for with public money. One-half of his deferred compensation vested every two years on a rolling basis, and the other half at the completion of his five-year contract, which was to end in 2014. Because he left the UW before his contract ran out, Emmert, too, left some of his deferred compensation behind.

In terms of university pay, nobody makes more than the football coach. This year, Husky football coach Steve Sarkisian will make $2.25 million, and basketball coach Lorenzo Romar will make more than $1 million. Coaches and athletic directors are funded through the intercollegiate athletic department’s budget, which is largely self-supporting.

By comparison, politicians usually make far less. Gov. Chris Gregoire makes $166,891 a year, an amount set by state law.

During his first public appearance in Seattle last week, Young pointed out that he will, in effect, be the CEO of one of the largest health-care systems in the state (the University of Washington Medical Center) and CEO of a sports program he says is larger than the Mariners. He described himself as holding a mayoral-like position over a population that could be counted as the 7th- or 8th-largest city in Washington. (The UW has about 42,000 students and 27,000 staff and faculty members).

Being president of a university is a demanding job that “kind of wears you out,” said Young, adding in jest, “You’re never fit for anything else after you do one of these.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or

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