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[Chris George/The Daily Pennsylvanian]

As university presidents' compensation packages nuzzle the million dollar mark across the country, Penn President Judith Rodin's pay has been keeping pace.

Since she came on board in 1994, she has ranked among the top three highest paid sitting University presidents -- and in fiscal years 1997-1998, 1998-1999 and 2000-2001, she ranked first, according to The Chronicle for Higher Education.

And, almost from the beginning of her decade in office, controversy and sour grapes have been along for the ride.

As early as the spring of 1995, Rodin came under fire on the floor of the House Appropriations Committee in Harrisburg, when then-State Representative John Lawless (R-Montgomery) responded to her request for $50 million in state funding with inquiries about her own salary -- which was then hovering around $350,000.

Earlier that year, some questioned the style in which Penn's president lived after an advertisement ran in the campus publication The Compass, announcing a vacancy in the presidential mansion, Eisenlohr Hall.

The ad called for a house manager to "care for family's pet dog, oversee homework and extracurricular activities of the president's two teenage sons and handle discipline as needed." The manager, a University employee compensated by Penn, would receive between $28,800 and $37,600 a year, according to the ad.

Later repudiated by Rodin as the result of a miscommunication between her and the Compass staffer who wrote the ad, the incident served as ammunition for those who questioned the level of compensation Rodin enjoyed.

Rodin's top-tier salary is not out of the ordinary for Penn, however -- the University has a history of generously providing for its presidents.

Rodin's immediate predecessor, Interim President Claire Fagin, was the highest paid president in the Ivy League the year before Rodin took office, earning $346,919. The year before, former University President Sheldon Hackney was the second-highest paid university president in the country during his last year in office, according to a 1994 Chronicle report, earning $676,574, including a bonus and benefits.

"Leadership in an institution is critical," said James Riepe, chairman of Penn's Board of Trustees. "We are willing to compensate people fairly."

According to industry experts, fair pay in higher education has been universally kicked up a notch during the final years of Rodin's tenure.

"Specifically in the last 12 to 18 months, we have seen compensation for leading presidents almost double, in the neighborhood of three-quarters [of a million] to a million dollars and growing," said Dan Parker, a partner with the international executive placement firm Baker Parker and Associates. "We don't know that there's a university president that's at the million dollar level, but we expect" that there will be one soon.

Parker said that the reason behind the rising salaries is simply supply and demand.

"We think it's probably because there's a limitation of the best people," Parker said. "Within the higher education sector, I hate to use the word business, but it is a business," he added, noting that Penn "is a major company with major responsibilities."

With so few proven, successful university presidents on the market, paying to keep the one you have is just good business, Parker said.

"What I'm sure the trustees are faced with is, we have someone who's doing a very fine job, and it's to our advantage to keep them," he said.

Rodin herself noted that significant portions of her compensation are based on her performance.

"I think one of the reasons my salary is high is that they have always put me... on a component that was goal-based," Rodin said. "The trustees felt that they wanted to link my compensation to my performance, and that they wanted to do that in a much more explicit way."

Robert Alvarez, a third-year Wharton MBA candidate and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Penn, concurred.

"U. Penn is a fairly unique enterprise to try to run, and there are a handful of extremely unique people who are probably qualified to do so," the presidential search committee member said.

Further, the more talented Penn's management team is seen to be, the more likely it is that other institutions will attempt to lure them away.

"I view this a little bit like I view my business," said Riepe, who also serves as a vice chairman of T. Rowe Price. "If no one ever wants your people, you have to wonder if you have good enough quality people. It's a compliment to the institution that peers try and hire away our people."

Riepe also noted that when Rodin's replacement is put on the payroll, "I would not expect at all for a new president to come in at the level where she is now."

Alvarez said that the salary figures are what you make of them.

"It depends very much on what you view the role of your university president should be," he said, adding that whether the president is more a faculty member with administrative responsibilities or a full-blown CEO depends on the character of the institution.

Alvarez added that Rodin's salary "would be fantastically inappropriate at a school like" his undergraduate alma mater, Wesleyan University.

Penn being the size it is -- especially with its mammoth health system -- Alvarez said that he saw the University "tending more towards the business" model.

On those terms, compared to corporate executives outside of academia, Rodin is actually underpaid, Alvarez said.

"I used to work in venture capital," Alvarez noted. "Had she been the manager of a company we were investing in, she'd be making a lot more."

"If you compare [administrators' salaries] to the private sector, then they are being compensated appropriately," Parker agreed.

"They're working typically 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week," he added. "In our opinion, they earn every penny they make."

Some, meanwhile, don't begrudge the University's compensation of its leadership -- just as long as they enjoy the same consideration.

"We think that President Rodin has the salary she needs to do her job professionally," said Rachel Buurma, spokeswoman of Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania.

"And in light of that, we think that Penn should extend [the same salary and benefits] to all their faculty and staff, and especially graduate employees, who right now don't have the salary and benefits to do a professional job in the best way we can."

About this series Penn is a very different place now than it was back in 1994, when University President Judith Rodin first took the helm. And now that Rodin has announced that she will leave her position in June, the University is apt to see more changes in the future. For the next week and a half, The Daily Pennsylvanian will examine a variety of issues, events and people on and around campus that have been affected under Rodin's decade-long tenure. Topics will range from Penn's reputation in higher education to the build-up of retail around campus to expectations for Rodin's successor.

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