Forty-two presidents of private colleges were paid more than $1 million in 2011, up from 36 for the previous two years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education's annual analysis of their latest available tax forms.
Included in the 42 is Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. The three top earners were Dr. Robert J. Zimmer, University of Chicago ($3,358,723); Dr. Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern University ($3,121,864); and Dr. Dennis J. Murray, Marist College ($2,688,148).
According to the Chronicle, Zimmer's pay doubled in 2011, Aoun's nearly tripled in the same time, and Murray's almost quadrupled from the previous year. Although their base salaries all remained less than $1 million, the top three, like many other highly paid presidents, earned much more from retirement packages, bonuses or deferred compensation.
The boards at some of the highest-paying universities took pains to point out that such awards are an incentive to retain a successful president, and that the money is meant to recognize the achievements of the president's total tenure.
In Tennessee, 10 private colleges made the Chronicle's list of 517 top-paid presidents.
With a 2011 package worth $580,782, John M. McCardell, vice chancellor at Sewanee: The University of the South, ranked 130th on the Chronicle's analysis. McCardell was the third highest-paid president in Sewanee's peer group, according to the analysis, making $53,347 less than the highest-paid president of a similar institution.
But his pay was nowhere near that of Vanderbilt's Zeppos, who ranked at number 25 in the nation. His total 2011 compensation of $1,234,749 made him Vanderbilt's 9th highest-paid employee. His base pay was 4.7 times the average salary of full professors at Vanderbilt University.
But the university's Board of Trust said Zeppos, who was named chancellor in 2008, is well worth that price tag because of his character, strategic vision and strong management.
"The Vanderbilt University Board of Trust strongly believes that Chancellor Zeppos deserves the compensation he receives for his exceptional ability to guide the university and medical center through a complex and rapidly changing landscape," Trustees said in a prepared statement.
Five private colleges in Alabama were included in the Chronicle's analysis. And in Georgia, 13 institutions were studied, including Berry College, whose president, Stephen R. Briggs, brought in a total of $506,132 in 2011. The analysis showed Briggs was the 4th highest-paid president in Berry's peer group, making $73,866 less than the highest-paid president of a similar institution. Still, his total compensation was less than 1 percent of the college's $77.1 million total expenses in 2011.
Berry College Board of Trustees Chairwoman Karen Holley Horrell said Briggs' compensation is in line with other comparable schools.
"The board uses an annual process by which it compares the president's base salary to a dozen comparable private institutions, including those in the Southern Athletic Association," she said in a statement, "and we understand his salary to be approximately at the median of that group of institutions."
Overall, compensation packages more than doubled in 2011 for 11 of the 42 presidents earning more than $1 million.
In the recent report, which included 550 presidents at the 500 private U.S. colleges with the largest endowments, the median total compensation was $410,523, up 3.2 percent over the previous year. The median base salary was $301,299, a 0.4 percent increase.
The Chronicle found 180 presidents earning more than $500,000 in 2011, compared with 50 in 2004.
Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this story.