Their View: Examine payrolls for a real education

It’s a dubious enough distinction that Penn State employed one of only two public university presidents nationwide with a seven-figure compensation package. But its payroll last year was even more exceptional — and questionable — for simultaneously spending millions on a former president.

Graham Spanier, who was placed on leave in 2012 after being charged in the cover-up of football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes, collected $2.3 million from Penn State in 2013-14, according to an illuminating survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, or more than three times the take of the nation’s next-best-paid ex-president of a state school. Meanwhile, Spanier successor and cleanup man Rodney Erickson earned $1.5 million, making him the highest-paid sitting president. Throw in a few months of compensation for current President Eric Barron, who took over for Erickson that spring, and Penn State spent a staggering $4.1 million on presidents in a single year — about 10 times what we pay the president of the United States.

While Penn State seems to have perfected the art of disproportionate compensation, the Chronicle found that public university presidential pay jumped 7 percent overall in just a year.

Nor are such practices restricted to schools handing out fancy degrees: The Inquirer last week also noted the case of Amy Sichel, the state’s highest-paid K-12 superintendent. To run the schools in suburban Abington, Sichel is paid more than Philadelphia’s William Hite, whose district has more students in a single grade.

Granted, Sichel appears to be exceptional for more than her $320,000 salary. And Erickson and Barron have led their 100,000-student university through a singularly difficult period — though Spanier was paid as handsomely to preside over the scandal that ushered in that period.

A lesson of Spanier’s downfall is that trustees should hesitate to lavish any executive with such riches, especially in the form of golden parachutes that reward even the most ignominious exit. Institutions that rely on the public to sustain them should be particularly sensitive to the unfortunate appearance of Cadillac compensation packages.

The same can be said of exotic forms of remuneration that serve mainly to obscure expenses. Penn State’s executive compensation has included lucrative life-insurance policies, a huge payout for unused sick and vacation time, and a $200,000 “moving allowance.” Abington’s superintendent, meanwhile, stands to enjoy yearly “retention bonuses” of as much as $30,000.

Are Penn State and the Abington schools really the best-led institutions of their kind by that much?

The figures suggest their trustees have shirked their obligation to ask such questions.