UCF chief gets top state pay

The 40 percent pay increase puts him past the presidents of UF and USF, schools with stronger research records.

Published July 27, 2006

ORLANDO — Let the salary wars begin.

On Thursday, University of Central Florida president John Hitt received a 40 percent pay raise, making him the state’s highest-paid public university leader.

Hitt’s new base salary of $450,000 vaults him past University of Florida president Bernie Machen, whose institution is the only public school in Florida included in the prestigious  Association of American Universities.

Hitt’s total compensation package, which exceeds $900,000, dwarfs that of University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, despite her school’s stronger research record.

USF attracted $285-million in research money last year. UCF barely broke $100-million. And Hitt has yet to secure hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars needed to make UCF’s proposed medical school a reality.

But UCF trustees said Hitt’s generous package is deserved recognition for the explosive growth and academic progress made during his long tenure at the Orlando school.

“He’s had a hell of a 14-year period,’’ said trustee Thomas Yochum. “If we’ve got a guy assessed in the 95th percentile, why are we paying him in the 75th percentile?”

Hitt will get a guaranteed one-time bonus of $100,000 and is eligible for performance-based bonuses of up to $210,000 at the end of the three-year contract.

Taxpayer dollars will cover only $225,000 of the package, a restriction mandated by the state. Private money will cover the rest.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a package like that?” asked Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents the leaders of 1,800 colleges and universities. “By comparison to other similar institutions across the country, it does seem more than a trifle excessive.”

UF officials could not be reached for comment about Hitt’s pay hike. USF trustees vice chairman John C. Ramil said he wasn’t surprised by the raise, pointing to years of escalating salaries that have many university presidents being compensated like corporate CEO’s.

A Chronicle of Higher Education survey last year of 139 public research institutions pegged the median pay for a public university president at $360,000, a 10 percent increase from 2004.

Twenty-three presidents in the survey made more than $500,000 — up from 17 the year before. The pay was even better at private schools, where five presidents received pay packages topping $1-million. Donna Shalala, the president at the University of Miami, a private school, makes more than $500,000.

Steinbach said Hitt’s raise could spark a salary escalation for Florida’s other university presidents.

“It would be foolhardy to think that the increase in salary for one president would not have some significant impact on other presidents’ salaries within the system,” he said.

Genshaft’s contract expires in 2007, but trustees are expected to begin negotiating in the next few months.

“Judy is well sought-after across the country,” Steinbach said. “So one of the items on the board’s mind as they talk about her salary might be that it would be appropriate to try to ensure she stays put.”

Ramil takes a more cautious approach.

“We don’t want to go crazy just to match what someone else is getting,” said Ramil, president and chief executive of TECO Energy. “The thing that anybody has to be careful of is that you don’t get sidetracked by something that’s way out of the market.”

But trustees have been pleased with Genshaft’s performance. Last year, she got a bonus of more than $30,000.
Hitt’s bonuses hinge on whether he meets goals for improved student and faculty quality, increased research and fundraising dollars, and the establishment and accreditation of the medical school.

By some indicators, UCF already is catching up to its peers.

UCF enrollment, now the second-highest in Florida, has doubled since Hitt arrived. Graduation rates and the average scores of incoming freshmen have increased, and now top those at USF.

Degree programs in hospitality management have garnered media attention, and a new stadium scheduled to open next year at the edge of UCF’s campus is evidence of the football program’s growth. Cranes and construction crews dot the suburban campus, home to new residence halls, academic buildings and even a Main Street-like entertainment and retail hub near the stadium.

And while the medical college isn’t yet backed by state dollars, Hitt, 65, did help convince university system leaders to endorse the controversial school. He also helped secure $50-million in private donations and donated land.

The school’s first capital campaign, launched last year, beat its $250-million goal by almost $90-million.

Orlando Magazine recently dubbed Hitt the most powerful person in Central Florida. In January, the Orlando Sentinel named Hitt the Central Floridian of the Year.

Consultant James Koch, hired to assess Hitt’s performance, concluded after interviewing more than 100 people that Hitt is one of the most effective presidents he has ever encountered.

After giving Hitt his raise Thursday, trustees awarded one more bonus — a standing ovation.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.’