WASHINGTON — What did the University of Pennsylvania get for the more than $900,000 it has paid Joe Biden?
The former vice president collected $371,159 in 2017 plus $540,484 in 2018 and early 2019 for a vaguely defined role that involved no regular classes and around a dozen public appearances on campus, mostly in big, ticketed events.
Penn’s payments to Biden raised eyebrows and questions among some in the community when they were revealed this week as part of the financial disclosures for his presidential campaign. The average salary for a Penn professor was $217,411 in the 2017-18 academic year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Biden’s official title was the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor — the first person to hold that job — and he also lent his name to the school’s effort to expand its footprint on international affairs.
Brought on board in February 2017, Biden took a leave of absence from Penn in April as he launched his presidential campaign.
His public appearances over that two-year stretch included three Q-and-As with Penn president Amy Gutmann, panel discussions on immigration and cancer, a talk about his book, a lecture to a Wharton class, and public conversations with former Mexico President Felipe Calderon and former United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, according to a tally by the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. Those events, of course, don’t include more private work Biden may have done on the school’s behalf.
But Penn probably didn’t pay Biden for what he would bring to the classroom or lecture hall, according to higher-education experts. Instead, the school was likely paying for something less tangible: the prestige of associating with a former vice president and senator who had burnished his reputation as a global figure.
“I know that it sounds like a really big salary for not teaching, and that’s right, but even if he were teaching, that’s not the value that Penn is hoping to get from having him associated with them,” said Temple University’s Douglas Webber, who studies the economics of higher education. “They’re wanting prestige, they’re wanting to brag about this to donors. Penn plays with big money donors, and if this moves the needle even a little bit in terms of getting a big donation, then it’s instantly worth the investment.”
Biden’s salary is commensurate with a college president who leaves the job but stays with the school in an ambassadorial role, said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. In announcing Biden’s appointment two years ago, Gutmann called him “an ideal fit to further Penn’s global engagement.”
In addition to its offices on Penn’s University City campus, the Biden Center also opened a suite of Washington offices steps from the U.S. Capitol, with commanding views of the Capitol dome and National Mall.
At the same time, Biden kept up a schedule of paid speeches to other audiences, including $190,000 at Drew University in Madison, N.J., on March 28 and $180,00 at Vanderbilt University on April 10, the day before he returned for a talk on opioids at Penn.
“By that standard Penn’s getting a great deal,” said Kelchen.
Not everyone agreed.
“It troubles me as a faculty member, that in these times of hyper-inflated student fees and constrained resources allocated to faculty hiring, we are paying someone almost a half million dollars a year to make a few public appearances on campus,” emailed Toorjo Ghose, an associate professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice. “I’d rather have had that money allocated to funding scholarships for students of color, or go towards the hiring of women faculty of color — both essential issues for the improvement of campus academic life.”
Asked this week about Biden’s role and responsibilities, a Penn spokesperson pointed prominently to the former vice president’s clout and reach.
“Vice President Biden has helped to expand Penn’s global outreach, while sharing his wisdom and insights with thousands of Penn students through seminars, talks, and classroom visits,” emailed Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio. “With decades of experience on the world stage, including eight years as vice president and 36 years in the U.S. Senate, he has been able to reach out to prominent world figures, bringing them to Penn’s campus for forums and conferences to discuss and debate critically important issues including immigration, climate change, Brexit, national defense, and global diplomacy.”
The school has another professor of presidential practice — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate. He appeared with Biden for at least two events on campus, including an April discussion on opioids, just weeks before Biden left to run for president. (Bush’s compensation is private.)
Most of Biden’s public appearances at Penn have been big talks that rapidly sold out and drew enthusiastic responses from students, according to accounts in the Daily Pennsylvanian. Before one, he spoke to students at a voter-registration drive.
“Biden remains a figure of intense fascination on campus. Students swarm the former vice president nearly every time he appears on campus this year, and events where he speaks consistently elicit a full house,” the newspaper wrote about that appearance in December 2017.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on his role at Penn. A Biden adviser said that holding big events allowed the former vice president to reach a broader audience than teaching individual classes, and that Biden regularly touted Penn and his connection there as he traveled the world.
If it were a public school using taxpayer money, Webber said, he might view the salary differently, but elite private institutions like Penn “don’t really have budget constraints.” (The school’s academic operating budget for fiscal year 2020 is $3.5 billion; its endowment is more than $13 billion.)
Webber noted that NCAA schools employ 241 assistant football coaches who make more than $400,000 a year — and he argued that Biden likely adds more value.
It’s difficult to find direct comparisons, Kelchen said, because few people of a vice president’s stature move into academia. Former President Jimmy Carter joined the faculty at Emory University after leaving office, but his salary is private.
Biden’s was only revealed because he opened up his tax returns and filed a required financial disclosure for his campaign. And his Penn compensation was dwarfed by the money he and his wife, Jill, made from books, speeches, and appearances — more than $15 million in 2017 and 2018. Biden made $230,700 per year as vice president, and for decades was known as one of the least wealthy senators, having spent nearly all his adult life in the chamber.
Should Biden win the presidency, he would be the second consecutive Oval Office occupant with an association with Penn, “which is pretty difficult to overstate how valuable that would be,” Webber said.
The school, however, has spent much less effort promoting its affiliation with President Donald Trump, a Wharton alum.