Published: April 05, 2023

Pitt leader’s $950K salary ‘new normal’


When Joan Gabel takes the reins at the University of Pittsburgh this summer, she will not only become the school’s first female chancellor but will also be catapulted into one of the highest paid base salaries for U.S. public school presidents.

Ms. Gabel — who on Monday was appointed to the top spot during a special board of trustees meeting — is set to receive a base salary of $950,000, not including retention payments and other incentives.

Her base salary will surpass that of her predecessor Patrick Gallagher by almost $252,000. Mr. Gallagher announced last year that he will resign this summer. Ms. Gabel, who currently serves as president of the University of Minnesota, will also be ranked seventh in the United States for base salary among public school presidents, according to information from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Salaries received by university presidents have been on the rise over the past several years, with some experts calling the $950,000 range the “new normal.”

But while pay bumps are happening across the country, it has led to pushback at many institutions including the University of Minnesota, where Ms. Gabel was heavily criticized for her almost $1 million compensation package.

“These university presidents … they tend to be the highest paid public executives in every state,” Judith Wilde, a research professor at George Mason University in Virginia, said.

The highest base salary in 2021 was $1.6 million, held by Michael L. Good, president of the University of Utah, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. His salary was followed by Renu Khator, University of Houston president and Jay Hartzell of the University of Texas at Austin, both of whom made almost $1.2 million that year.

The numbers quickly dipped below $1 million, with seven university presidents receiving a base salary in the $900,000 range that year. Last year, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi joined that category when she was hired with a base salary of $950,000.

Ms. Gabel will start her new position at Pitt in July. She will be the first woman to lead the university in its more than 200-year history.

Ms. Gabel has worked for years at universities across the country. She started her college teaching career in 1996 after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College in Delaware County and a law degree from the University of Georgia.

She quickly worked her way up, serving as executive vice president and provost at the University of South Carolina and as the University of Missouri’s dean of the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business before joining the University of Minnesota, where she oversaw the completion of a 10-year, $4 billion capital campaign that exceeded its goal by 10%, according to a news release from Pitt.

The University of Minnesota during her tenure developed its first comprehensive systemwide strategic plan that resulted in record-setting graduation rates and annual research expenditures. Throughout that decadelong campaign she built partnerships such as the NXT GEN MED program between the university, Mayo Clinic and Google.

In addition to her base salary, Ms. Gabel will also receive five annual $200,000 deferred retention incentive payments and she will be eligible for $100,000 retention payments on the third, fourth and fifth anniversaries of her start date as long as she does not voluntarily resign or is dismissed from her position prior to June 30, 2029, according to a resolution from the university’s compensation committee.

She will also be entitled to $5,000 in reimbursement for any tax complications that may arise because of her transition between universities.

Additional incentives may be laid out in the contract, Ms. Wilde said. The contract is not available to the public.

Ms. Wilde attributed salary increases to high-level attorneys helping president-elects secure their contracts. Additionally, “if you find a president you think is going to be great and you know that person is being sought after, you want to make sure you get that president no matter what,” Ms. Wilde said.

When discussing Ms. Gabel’s salary Monday, Pitt board Chair Doug Browning said to attract a good leader, trustees knew they needed to offer “significantly higher” than what Mr. Gallagher was earning. Mr. Gallagher’s salary fell below the 50% level of university leaders in the Association of American Universities, according to Mr. Browning.

“In some ways this is the new normal when we look around,” Ms. Wilde said. “Once you have one person getting that amount, other presidents are very aware of what their colleagues are making. … We’re just seeing those numbers go up.”

Despite spending almost four years at the University of Minnesota, Ms. Gabel’s tenure was not without controversy. She came under fire over her role on a financial company board from which she recently resigned, as well as for her compensation package.

In December 2021, Ms. Gabel’s salary increased from $650,000 to $660,000. With another raise, her base salary was expected to grow to $706,000 this year. With increases to her supplemental retirement contribution, a performance bonus and other allowances, her compensation totaled about $1 million this year, according to the Star Tribune.

Students, staff and faculty criticized the timing of her pay bump because it came shortly after employees were furloughed, tuition was hiked 1.5% and three men’s sports programs were cut, the newspaper reported.

While several board members defended Ms. Gabel’s raise at the time, University of Minnesota students on Monday largely applauded her move to Pittsburgh.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Dylan Young, president of the Morris Campus student Association said some students struggling to pay for groceries became frustrated over Ms. Gabel’s raise and her position on the Securian Financial board, which paid $130,000 in annual compensation.

“I don’t want to absolve her of her mistakes and missteps,” Mr. Young told the newspaper. “And to tell you the truth, maybe it’s a pessimistic view, but I’m not sure if any other college president is going to do any better.”