Lefton’s salary reflects executive compensation trend

Jackie Valley

President Lester Lefton’s total compensation places him just above the $450,000 benchmark needed to attract and keep presidents at major public research institutions estimated by the higher education publication, The Chronicle.

Lefton’s $479,788 total compensation ranks second highest in the state among other four-year public institutions.

Paul Fain, Chronicle staff reporter who helped author the report, said the increase in executive compensation mimics the market competition as universities turn to “compensating people more fairly for what’s becoming a difficult job.”

In the past 15 years, Fain said the role of university presidents has shifted from academic leaders to prominent fundraisers.

“The skills realized to be a good fundraiser are not necessarily the ones to make you a good faculty member,” he said.

Fain said the challenges associated with higher education in Ohio have contributed to salary increases as boards of trustees seek candidates willing to face the state’s funding difficulties.

“Ohio has been in a tough budget crunch, so there’s been a lot of pressure on presidents to raise money privately and work with state legislators,” he said.

Sandra Harbrecht, chair of the Kent State Board of Trustees, said attracting talented presidents is vital to the future of higher education in the country.

“I think that the whole country is realizing that higher education is critical to the health of the country, so having excellent institutions of higher education is critical to our future,” she said. “The next thought that comes along the way is in order to have excellent institutions, you have to have excellent people running them.”

Fain said the average tenure of presidents is about eight and a half years, which is slightly less than the ideal duration of a decade to initiate and make progress toward fundraising.

Harbrecht said retaining a president involves a community effort, but she thinks it is the most important task after recruitment.

“I would say that keeping them requires certainly the resources financially, but it is a lot more than that,” she said. “Constituents need to embrace the president and help take the university where it needs to go.”

To maintain presidents, Fain said many boards are offering “golden handcuffs” — incentives beyond salaries, such as bonuses and deferred compensation.

“What you are seeing is corporate management style migrating over,” he said.

Lefton’s contract includes $50,000 in deferred compensation — money an institution sets aside to be received at a later date — and $29,788 in retirement pay.

Fain said the portion of Lefton’s deferred compensation was one of the most “well articulated and clear” in the country, which is better for transparency.

The Chronicle report did not calculate Lefton’s five percent salary raise or the $70,000 performance bonus he received after his first year evaluation. His salary increased from $350,000 to $367,500.

Harbrecht said the Board of Trustees believes tying compensation to performance is important to reward progress.

“I’m not so sure colleges and universities have done so much in the past,” she said. “We thought if he achieved certain things, that was something to be compensated for.”

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].