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Top dollar: Wide span in campus pay

Salaries for university presidents are rising in what the Chronicle of Higher Education has described as “an income gap that widens at the top,” and Dr. Bob Fisher’s compensation is in keeping with that trend.

After 10 years at Belmont, Fisher’s compensation as president for the 2010 fiscal year was $862,686, according to the university’s latest available Form 990, the tax return the IRS requires for most nonprofits. The figure is nearly four times his salary in his first year at Belmont, which began in April 2000, and more than nine times the average compensation of most of Belmont’s faculty.

In addition, Fisher was given a 25.6 percent raise during the 2010 fiscal year, most of which was allocated as deferred payments, according to the tax return. Fisher’s salary is determined by a “written employment contract,” a “compensation survey or study,” and “approval by the board [of trustees] or compensation committee.”

The Vision made multiple attempts to contact board chairman Marty Dickens and Dr. Fisher for interviews or comments, and they did not respond.

In comparison to local universities, Fisher’s compensation falls well below the highest presidential pay in Middle Tennessee. Vanderbilt’s chancellor was paid $1.89 million in 2009, making him one of 36 U.S college presidents who made more than $1 million that year.

Compensation for Lipscomb’s president was $372,616.

The Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees a number of state universities, lists the MTSU president’s pay for 2011-12 at $271,772.

Nationwide, however, Fisher’s compensation puts him in notable company, as these figures show:

• He makes $11,000 less than the president of Harvard, an Ivy League school which U.S. News and World Report ranks as the No. 2 university in the world.

• His total compensation of $856,662 is the 55th highest among 519 private university chief executives examined in an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education. His base salary of $662,967, excluding deferred and other compensation, is 27th among 463 schools, according to the report.

• His compensation accounts for about 0.7 percent of the university’s expenditures during the last year for which figures are available. According to Chronicle reports, the average university president’s compensation takes up less than half of that—0.3 percent— in their school’s budgets.

Fisher almost certainly returns a considerable amount to various university’s funds to support many aspects of Belmont. While most of those dollar amounts are personal, a campus landmark – the bronze bruin statue – was a 2003 gift from Fisher and his wife, Judy.

As all universities face rising costs and recruit students to grow their enrollment and their revenue, administrators are earning more, too.

Belmont compensation chart

Belmont compensation chart

“The question of how much is too much money for a college leader has particular resonance at a time when the national conversation is increasingly focused on the haves and the have-nots,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Fisher’s compensation is also eight times the average compensation of Belmont’s full professors, the highest faculty rank. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average private school president made 3.7 times the average full professor. When the president’s salary is compared to all ranks of Belmont professors, including instructors, assistant and associate professors, the disparity expands to a difference of nine times.

According to the most recent survey of the American Association of University Professors, Belmont faculty, whether as an instructor, assistant, associate, or full professor, make an average compensation of $84,400. While the amount is an average, it may not reflect the norm for many professors. Just as salary averages for some in-demand majors are higher than others, so are salaries for faculty in those areas.

Other senior administrators listed in each of the returns – 2008-10 – were vice presidents Todd Lake, Bethel “Bo” Thomas, Steve Lasley and Jason Rogers, whose combined salaries averaged $197,205 in 2010.

Provost Dr. Thomas Burns was not yet at Belmont when the most recent tax return was released, and Dr. Susan West, a vice president who is also Fisher’s chief of staff, was not listed on all of the available forms.

The senior administration salaries can’t be compared with other universities because of widely varying organizational structures.

Except for Burns, all of these officials serve at the will of President Fisher, said Lasley, vice president for Finance and Operations.

Another level of disparity among faculty and administrators during this three-year period occurred with the raises both groups gained since 2008.

Tax returns show that while professors and senior administrators received raises from 2008 to 2010, faculty raises were only about half of those for administrators. Senior administrators, excluding Dr. Fisher, received an aggregate 14.4 percent pay hike from 2008-10, while all ranks of professors gained only 5.8 percent, according to a survey by the American Association of University Professors. Fisher, in the same time period, had a 32.7 increase in compensation.

Since 2000, his total annual compensation has risen by 20 percent or more five times, according to records by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2007, however, his deferred compensation decreased, so for that year his total compensation was lower than it was the previous year.

In addition to the president and vice presidents, the IRS also requires reporting compensation of the top five highest-paid employees outside senior adminstration. Head men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd leads that list. He earned $524,674 in total compensation in 2010. Byrd received a nearly 60 percent pay raise, based on figures from the previous year’s return.

Others that made the list of highest-paid were Dr. Phillip Johnston, dean of the School of Pharmacy; Dr. J. Patrick Raines, the Jack C. Massey dean of the College of Business Administration; and Dr. Jeffrey Cornwall, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and holds the Jack C. Massey Chair in Entrepreneurship. The three had a combined compensation of $652,957, an average of $217,649 during the 2010 fiscal year.

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