If Robert W. Mendenhall would just stop meeting the goals set by the board of trustees of Western Governors University, he would make a lot less money. Mendenhall is the president of WGU, a nonprofit, online-only, accredited university based in Utah. His salary — including performance bonuses and other compensation — was revealed today along with 448 other private-college presidents' salaries in an annual study by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle's information is based upon a review of federal tax documents from 2008 (the latest available). WGU and Westminster College are the only Utah institutions mentioned in the report. BYU does not release salary information, according to spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins.

Mendenhall's base salary was $309,370, but with bonuses, deferred benefits and non-tax benefits, total compensation swelled to $689,150. This salary places him as the 72nd highest compensated president among the 448 other private-college presidents.

At Westminster College, president Michael S. Bassis had total compensation of $473,760. His ranking is 165th among the 448.

Neither Bassis nor Mendenhall's compensation approached that of the number one ranked private-college president's earnings: Bernard Lander, the founder of Touro College in New York, received a total compensation package of $4,786,830. That figure included $4.2 million in retroactive compensation for pay and retirement benefits. Lander died in February this year.

The highest-paid sitting president was R. Gerald Turner of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He earned $2,774,000 in total compensation. But according to SMU, Turner's pay was unusually high only because he had cashed out a life-insurance policy to buy his own policy — accounting for $1.5 million of his total pay. So he only really made about $1,274,000. That is enough to keep him in the ranks of the 30 private-college presidents who made more than $1 million.

College president salaries seem to be a game of comparison. William A. Sederburg, Utah's commissioner of higher education, told the Deseret News in a phone interview that public university salaries are set by comparing universities to their peer institutions in other states. "Typically our salaries are about 80 percent of salaries of their peers; we're just a cheap state; we are one of the least-funded states in the union; we've kept tuition low."

Sederburg said Utah's public university salaries range from about $180,000 to $350,000 — but compensation hasn't changed for about three years.

"University presidents do make a lot of money," he said. "If you look at the responsibility of what they manage it's quite appropriate; it's driven by the marketplace; we need to pay enough to attract good people."

Private colleges have different measures of comparison. "It's just a different world," Sederburg said. "I think they have gone overboard; I think some of these salaries are a little bit out of alignment. That is not the issue with public universities in Utah; we are below our peer institutions."

Although Mendenhall's compensation from WGU may seem high to Sederburg, David Simmons, a member of WGU's board of trustees and its compensation committee, thinks it is in line with competing salaries.

If you compare the compensation with other bachelor-degree institutions in the survey, it would rank fifth highest. But in a phone interview Simmons said it is hard to compare WGU with other universities. "It is a very nontraditional university — having no bricks and mortar. It being online and also being competency-based, which is a very different learning paradigm," he said. "You end up in competition with for-profit institutions like University of Phoenix or several others that are all online."

Simmons said if they had to compete with the for-profits' salary levels, the salary would be a lot higher. "It is substantially below the for-profit peer institutions that we find ourselves competing against," he said. "One of the challenges we face is keeping good people and not having them go to for-profit schools."

When Simmons, the head of Simmons Media Group, came on WGU's board about seven years ago, it had about 1,000 students. Now there are around 20,000 students and tuition hasn't been raised in five or six years, he said.

Results like these play into the size of Mendenhall's bonuses. Simmons said the board of trustees set high goals for enrollment, retention rate, satisfaction rate, financial affairs and other factors. "Virtually every year the targets that have been set have been met or excelled," Simmons said. "Each year as we have reviewed compensation we set higher bars for the next year, thinking that this is going to be almost impossible to achieve. And yet year after year this senior management group has been able to do it."

The full compensation report is online at chronicle.com/section/Executive-Compensation/150 and a 2008 Deseret News story about pay at Utah's public colleges is at www.deseretnews.com/article/700230523/College-presidents-to-see-moderate-salary-hike.html

Contributing: Elizabeth Stuart

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com