TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Top dogs, top paychecks — presidential pay and perks can raise eyebrows, questions

Year in and year out, some of the best money that a college newsroom can invest is in a subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which – along with its comparably excellent (and online-only) competitor Inside Higher Ed – is a factory cranking out steal-able story ideas.

The Chronicle is out with its annual survey of the compensation packages of presidents at America’s 185 largest public universities covering 2009-10, and as always, the compilation is fascinating reading (and provides multiple opportunities for follow-up and localization).

Note that the term is “compensation” and not “salary” for a reason. Comparing salary figures alone can be deceptive, since some chief executives’ base pay is supplemented heavily by bonuses, car and housing allowances, and other non-salary perks. This includes “deferred compensation,” which is a fancy way of saying money that is put aside in a tax-sheltered retirement account.

To give one example, the base pay for University of Central Florida President John C. Hitt, $463,500, puts him right in the mainstream of presidents of similar-sized Florida institutions. But when his $200,000 bonus and deferred compensation of $92,700 are added, Hitt becomes Florida’s heaviest hitter – more than $100,000 ahead of the second-place finisher.

Perennial list-topper E. Gordon Gee of The Ohio State University again leads the presidential pack, with a pay package, including deferred compensation and perks, valued at $1.8 million – enough to make anyone say, “Gee!” That’s twice the remuneration paid to runner-up Mark A. Emmert of the University of Washington (who left last year to becoming president of the NCAA).

Any salary in the high six figures is going to look enormous to a journalist, especially a college journalist living off convenience-store burritos and free coffee refills. But a well-rounded story will look beyond the initial “cha-ching” factor and inquire, for example, whether the president is even one of the five or ten best-paid people at the institution (those at campuses with big-time med schools and star athletic coaches often are not).

And, since many of these pay packages were negotiated in happier economic times, it is valid to ask – and ask to see documentation – whether the president is sharing in the rank-and-file employees’ pain (e.g., by forsaking bonuses and raises, as some have) or is floating above it.

It is of course not necessary to wait for the Chronicle to do this legwork. While the Chronicle compiles its information via a nationwide survey, the salary and benefits of a university president are boilerplate public information at any public institution, and will also be disclosed as part of the IRS Form 990 filed annually by every private, non-profit institution.