For the second straight year, the chief executives of 36 private U.S. colleges or universities earned more than $1 million in 2010, according to an annual study by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Topping the list in Pennsylvania was Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who earned a base salary of $915,000 and total compensation of $1,463,000. New Jersey's top earner was Princeton's Shirley Tilghman, who earned $711,000 in salary and a total of $902,000.

Gutmann's package placed her 12th nationally on the list of 493 private schools' chief executives, and third in the Ivy League behind Columbia University's Lee Bollinger and Yale's Richard Levin. Tilghman, who along with Levin has announced plans to step down next year, ranked 45th nationally.

Gutmann was not the region's best-paid academic chief executive, however. That distinction belongs to Jack Varsalona, president of Wilmington University, a rapidly growing private institution based in New Castle, Del., with branch campuses in New Jersey and Maryland. Varsalona ranked 10th nationally with total compensation of $1,550,000, including base salary of $373,000.

The study released Sunday does not include the pay of chief executives at public institutions - the Chronicle reports those each spring. Graham Spanier, forced to resign last year as Pennsylvania State University's chief executive during the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal, placed third nationally in its most recent rankings, earning a total of $1,069,000.

"My gut tells me he will top the public list the next time we do it, because of the big package he got when he left," said Chronicle senior reporter Jack Stripling, who has covered academic pay for nearly a decade. Spanier, now facing criminal charges for his role in the Sandusky case, was to receive $1.2 million in severance and a similar amount in deferred compensation from his 16 years as president.

Academic pay is often controversial, beyond that singular example. Stripling said that college and university boards apply widely varying standards for determining pay, and that some critics link outsized compensation with increasingly unaffordable tuitions.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who topped the Chronicle's latest rankings by earning more than $3 million in 2010 as president of the New School in New York City, was a target in the spring when details of his compensation became public. Board members said it included a $1.2 million retention bonus "to ensure a smooth transition to his successor's presidency," the Chronicle reported in May. Faculty critics called the pay excessive, especially since the school faced lower-than-expected enrollment.

Stripling said part of the impetus was Kerrey's importance during a campaign to finance a costly construction project.

"The reality is that the highest-paid presidents are often serving institutions that have great fund-raising success," Stripling said. "It's not uncommon to hear board members say that they're getting an incredible return on their investment. And there's little question that on most campuses, the president is the fund-raiser-in-chief."

Stripling said retention incentives were common in packages such as Penn's, which in 2010 awarded Gutmann $477,000 in deferred compensation - money she could lose if she "were to walk away before a predetermined date."

"Amy Gutmann is a hot commodity in higher education," Stripling said. "The board wants to retain her, and it's setting aside a lot of money each year essentially as a guarantee that she'll have an incentive to stay."

Stripling said Varsalona's large package at Wilmington reflects a different aspect of the education marketplace. He said Wilmington has fueled its growth to more than 15,000 students by competing with for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix.

"They're tapping into a very similar market - nontraditional students who really demand and need the convenience of online education" and other accommodations for adult learners, he said.

Still, advocates such as Michael Dannenberg, of Washington's Education Trust, question whether there is too much focus on revenue and too little on outcome. "There are colleges with highly paid presidents and abysmal graduation rates," he said. "There should be a connection between presidential pay and student performance."

To see the study, go to