Chattanooga State Community College
• President: James Catanzaro, since 1990
• Base salary: $170,568/$189,208 including all compensation
• Size: 11,840 students, including those in the Tennessee Technology Center
• Tuition and fees: $2,748/year
Cleveland State Community College
• President: Carl Hite, since 1996
• Base salary: $147,599/$162,879 including all compensation
• Size: 3,753 students
• Tuition and fees: $3,287/year
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
• Chancellor: Roger Brown, since 2005
• Base salary: $225,495/$233,795 including all compensation
• Size: 11,438 students
• Tuition and fees: $6,718/year
Dalton State College
• President: John Schwenn, since 2008
• Base salary: $152,930/$195,980 including all compensation
• Size: 5,485 in fall 2011
• Tuition and fees: $3,622/year
Since the beginning of the recession, area colleges and universities have held the line on what they pay their top leaders, data show.
But school presidents say that must change if the state wants to attract and retain those leaders.
Presidents at the four area public schools -- Chattanooga and Cleveland state community colleges, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Dalton State College in Georgia -- all earn below the national median except for James Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State. His base salary is right on the median at $170,568.
"Most systems are very cognizant of the economy," said Gretchen Bataille, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.
"At the same time, they are hiring people who have to oversee very large budgets, whose spouses or partners are expected to participate in a lot of activities. It's a 24/7 job," Bataille said.
"If you compare salaries of presidents with the salaries of corporate leadership for similar budgets and number of employees, you find that presidents aren't paid as much as corporate leaders," she said.
Presidents' salaries are coming under greater scrutiny, especially as tuition increases pressure many families struggling to afford college.
Local college leaders acknowledge it's a tough balancing act to attract and retain top leaders while keeping college affordable.
"We try our best to keep our tuition and fees in the middle of our peer set," said UTC Chancellor Roger Brown. "To me, that's the benchmark I'm working to preserve."
Since 2006, tuition and fees at UTC have increased about 40 percent, to $3,359 a semester. Meanwhile, Brown's total compensation went up 4.5 percent.
All four local leaders said they are in their positions not for the money, but because they believe in their institutions. But they also said the state must look at compensation.
"In general, we have lost ground in being at a competitive salary with our peers, not so much with the one-year reduction but the multiyear freeze in salary increases," said Brown. The freeze ran from 2009 to 2011.
Top administrators who report to the UT system president took pay cuts in 2008 and again in 2009. He also gave up his school-provided Chevrolet Impala.
"The [UT system] president at that time said it would make a powerful statement to the state and the taxpayers if we said we would help by actually reducing our salaries," he said. "It was really an action in the spirit of saying, 'Everybody is having a hard time, and we feel very fortunate to have our jobs, and we want to make it clear we are willing to help the state.'"
Brown received a 3 percent raise in 2011, bringing his base salary to $225,495. Count a $7,000 expense account and a $600 cellphone allowance and his total compensation is $233,795.
That's below the $265,000 national median for a master's institution, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
Most local college leaders blame the recession, which started in 2007, for the lower salaries.
"When I arrived in 2005, I felt the offer given at that time was comparable to other universities with a similar size and profile," Brown said.
Cleveland State President Carl Hite said community college presidents in Tennessee don't make anywhere close to what they do in states such as Florida, where he worked before relocating.
"I know Tennessee is a low-salary, low-wage state, but it really is low compared to other states in terms of what presidents make, what faculty make, what staff makes," he said. "I don't care what position you look at, from the top down we are behind most of our colleagues and peers any place else.
"I like to think people come to Tennessee for a variety of reasons, not just the money, but the money needs to be more attractive than it has been, both for attracting folks as well as keeping folks," he added.
Hite received an 8 percent increase in the 2007-08 school year. His next raise was a 3 percent increase given to Tennessee Board of Regents employees in 2011.
Tuition and fees at Cleveland State rose 37 percent in the last six years, to $3,287 a year.
Hite's total compensation is $162,879, which includes an expense account of $4,000, a housing allowance of $10,800 and a $480 allowance for his cellphone.
He also uses a 2010 Ford Fusion, a hybrid car that cost $27,294, including $4,500 trade-in value for an old Buick also provided by the school.
Chattanooga State's Catanzaro drives a 2011 Volkswagen Tiguan that cost $29,750 -- including a $10,000 trade-in of his previous vehicle. His expense account and housing allowance are the same as Hite's, but his annual cellphone allowance is $1,800. His compensation includes about $2,000 in membership dues to the Rotary Club and the Walden Club.
But the college presidents said the car, housing and expense allowances are needed to match their responsibilities as chief executives. They are expected to fundraise and "friendraise," Catanzaro said.
"You are a representative of the college to the community, you work with the Chamber of Commerce, with the manufacturing association, the mayor, the City Council," said Catanzaro, who has been president at different institutions for 35 years.
"When I started out 35 years ago, [the president] was really the leader of the campus," he said. "Sure, I had connections outside and was a member of Rotary, but I didn't play a role in economic development as I do now."
But he insisted he doesn't pay attention to salaries.
Making a difference is what counts, he said.
"What I think is most important is strong leadership, and that will lead to tremendous benefits to the community and state," Catanzaro said.
At Dalton State, John Schwenn's base salary has remained flat at $152,930 since he arrived in 2008, including $10,250 paid by the school's foundation. His total compensation, including a $19,400 housing allowance, is $195,980.
Schwenn said he's being fairly compensated.
"You work for what you are willing to work for and do the job you were hired to do," he said.
No one in his school has gotten a raise either. If he had to choose, he said, he'd rather see his faculty and staff get one than him.
"It doesn't mean I wouldn't like one, but they all deserve it," he said.