A growing tendency for US universities to embrace private-sector attitudes is undermining the system, say many of the country's professors. Many campus presidents are now paid as if they were corporate chief executives — and some academics say that this is rewarding the wrong type of leadership.

A recent report has revealed that salaries for university presidents have shot up over the past decade, whereas pay packets for professors have barely kept pace with inflation (see graph, below).

John Curtis, director of research at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington DC, discovered the extent of the disparity when he compared figures from the AAUP's annual salary survey with presidential salary data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.


The average professor at a PhD-granting university earned about $100,700 in 2003–04, he says, whereas the average president got $270,000. The difference is especially pronounced at private institutions, he adds. Johns Hopkins University's president, William Brody, was the most highly paid president in 2003, according to a survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education, earning just over $590,000.

Curtis sees the growing gap as a “move towards the more corporate style of management”, with universities paying high salaries for ruthless cost-cutting leadership. This is the wrong model, he argues, because universities are not run to make shareholders rich, but to educate students and benefit society.

Raymond Pierotti, a biologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has been following the salary trends for several years. He says that a dip in federal and state funding is forcing universities to act more like companies. He worries that the high salaries will attract “people who are willing to sell out what a university is supposed to stand for because they are more motivated by money”.

But others say that the wages are fair compensation for an increasingly tough job. “The demands of the job are expanding,” says Melanie Corrigan, a policy analyst at the American Council on Education in Washington DC. “A president is a cross between a chief executive of a large corporation and a small-city mayor.”

Pierotti says that the trend won't be reversed unless there is an influx of cash from government sources. But this may be far off — state and federal budgets are under pressure and are likely to remain tight for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Pierotti warns that the bottom line is beginning to affect professors as well. “Faculty members are assessed not only on the quality of their teaching or even their research, but on how fundable their research is,” he says.