Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 | 7:22 a.m.
At a Board of Regents meeting in late November, men and women in suits, looking solemn, took the microphone one by one to present a bevy of unsavory options for slashing college budgets: layoffs, learning center closures, a reduction in the number of classes offered.
Staff members' livelihoods were in danger. Students' academic success was at risk.
But the institution presidents giving the disheartening speeches were safe.
Each permanent campus leader has a four-year contract outlining base pay ranging from $181,220 yearly for Paul Killpatrick at Great Basin College to $406,946 yearly for David Ashley at UNLV and Milton Glick at UNR. That, plus car and housing allowances worth thousands more apiece.
Together, 50 employees of the Nevada System of Higher Education - the vice chancellors of the system and the presidents, vice presidents and provosts of seven state colleges and the Desert Research Institute - are slated to haul in more than $10 million this year.
Though most of the money they receive is public, part of some employees' pay comes from private sources. Ashley's and Glick's annual compensations, for example, include $170,000 from their schools' foundations.
"Sometimes the ivory tower gets too tall for some of the administrators," Regent Steve Sisolak said.
"I don't know the difference between a $400,000 president and a $300,000 president. I think they're both quality people ... When we had the presidential searches for UNLV and UNR there was no shortage of applicants."
Ashley's and Glick's annual salaries of $432,946 each, including perquisites, are not unusual.
Many college governing boards are offering chiefs paychecks topping $500,000, citing competition for talent among schools. Ten public universities or university systems gave leaders more than $700,000 last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
The median compensation for 182 public school leaders the Chronicle surveyed was $397,349. Private sector earnings were even higher.
Salaries of higher education chief executives, adjusted for inflation, climbed more than 35 percent between 1995-96 and 2005-06, according to the American Association of University Professors. With no peak in sight, some in academia are wondering when enough is enough.
"After you make $250,000 a year, how many houses can you live in, how many cars can you drive?" said regents Vice Chairman Howard Rosenberg, a UNR professor.
Ashley and Glick each make twice as much money as Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine, who oversees a $5.7 billion budget and more than 10,000 employees.
Their annual salaries also top - by more than $100,000 - those of the city managers of Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Reno, the Washoe County manager, the Southern Nevada Health District's chief health officer, and the general managers of the Las Vegas Valley Water Department, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission, according to a salary survey Clark County staff conducted a few months ago.
But regents Chairman Michael Wixom says that while the job market for officials such as city and county managers is largely local, head hunters trying to fill higher education positions conduct national searches.
The best leaders are worth the money, Wixom said, because they are not only administrators but fundraisers, academics and lobbyists for their schools.
Ashley's administration has earned praise from faculty members for inviting them to town hall meetings to help decide how UNLV should cut its budget.
Under Glick's watch, UNR snagged 10 high-achieving high school National Merit Scholars in 2007, five times the number the school attracted in each of the past two years.
"These are hard times, and that's when you really need leadership," said Joe Crowley, who was president of UNR for 23 years before stepping down in 2001 with a salary of about $200,000.
The traits colleges seek in presidents fall "just short of being able to walk on water," said Stephen Trachtenberg, a former George Washington University president who is a consultant for the search firm Korn/Ferry International. As a president's work has become more demanding, he said, the pool of capable candidates has shrunk.
"There aren't that many people who are prepared to do these jobs if you believe the job descriptions that are issued by universities," he said.
Even so, Trachtenberg acknowledged a public school paycheck can get too fat, reflecting poorly on the recipient. How much is too much, though, is tough to determine.
Chancellor Jim Rogers, who takes home $23,660 a year, the minimum required, said, "It takes the people who are making $300,000 or $400,000 to make the decisions. You pay for (people who have) the talent and the ability ... to make decisions."
But Rosenberg and Sisolak say the top has gotten too heavy.
Ashley, Glick and others may deserve the money they're reeling in. But the system, struggling financially, can't afford them, Sisolak said. As far as he's concerned, anything above $250,000 is too much.
Along with chiefs come legions of vice presidents and vice chancellors whose yearly earnings range from the low six figures to more than $400,000. Most vice presidents earn more than $150,000. Together, eight at UNLV draw more than $1.6 million.
Other administrators also make a hefty sum. UNLV's business and dental deans each makes more than $250,000. The law school dean's pay is $325,000. The men's basketball coach gets about $1 million. (None of his compensation comes from the state.)
The average full professor at UNLV or UNR earned about $110,000 in 2006-07, according to a salary survey by the American Association of University Professors. Assistant professors made close to $65,000.
Disparities between faculty and executive pay can dampen morale, said John Curtis, the association's director of research and public policy. Schools seem to be mimicking corporate entities with their growing focus on the bottom line and top administrators, he said.
Universities have traditionally been built around shared governance, with faculty senates heavily influencing decisions. Soaring presidential salaries "seem to indicate an increasing trend toward putting a lot of priority on one single individual," Curtis said.
Though leadership is important, Rosenberg and Sisolak think they could find a good chief for less than what they're paying at UNLV and UNR.
Although the market is a factor behind increasing pay, Curtis thinks, talk of competition, not actual competition, is partly what drives up prices.
For Ashley, who started at UNLV in 2006, the market is real.
"I did know Milt Glick's salary when I was given an offer - the offer was to match his salary," Ashley wrote in an e-mail. "Would I have accepted a different salary? I do not know, but not likely.
"Another point: If I had a lesser salary, then another university's recruitment might be more tempting. I believe that most all major university presidents receive regular inquiries from headhunters and other universities - a market salary is important for retention."
For all the tussling and wrangling that take place today over executive compensation, the debate is an old one.
Crowley recalls that to lure Robert Maxson to UNLV in the 1980s, the regents offered the president-to-be more than $90,000, enough to compete with his pay in Texas.
"I think I was making somewhere in the mid-50s at the time," Crowley said.
"In a period of maybe two years, I caught up with him, and we made the same."