Are college presidents overpaid? In most cases, yes. Overpaid or not, I expect more from the person in that position, and the pay and benefits that come with it, in terms of job performance.
Most university presidents do what every other university president does. Sameness, along with professional stasis, should not be rewarded with high pay. Leaders are people who not only challenge the norms of higher education and lead it towards a brighter future, they personally grow and improve their skills and capabilities through purposeful practice. Instead, what we typically see is university presidents that do little to develop themselves – and new ways of thinking – and whose focus is nothing more than keep the wheels from falling off the institutional wagon. And, in many cases, decisions made today, based on sameness are setting the institution up for future failure. Not wanting to be different can be disastrous.
High pay is better justified when a university president can do things that others cannot or will not do, and which results in a practical new model for higher education that is better than the traditional model. Needless to say, a university president skilled in Lean management (Continuous Improvement + Respect for People) is worth more than a university president skilled in conventional zero-sum management.
However, a university president skilled in Lean management would not seek high remuneration and would refuse it if offered by trustees. Infused with the mind of a Lean thinker, they know high pay is a cost that the university that students and payers cannot afford. They would instead direct the money towards more productive uses, such as funding continuous improvement activities.
Such people want to be president because they want the responsibility of leading positive, non-zero-sum change on a daily basis. They are not in the job because they like titles, perks, sycophants, and so on. They want to work to create a better future tomorrow and every day thereafter for students and all university stakeholders. That’s the most important thing.
Does money attract the best leadership? No. I think in most cases it attracts people who are attracted to money, and far less attracted to doing great work that is unique, valuable, and independent of the herd.
Sameness is safe, and at the present time it pays very well. Read the debate on college president pay in The New York Times.