Why did Reed President Audrey Bilger take a 111% raise in 2021?
In fact, the Quest has found no evidence to suggest that President Bilger has ever accepted a raise from the college greater than 2%. While it’s true that a data visualization published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in July implied that Bilger had accepted a raise of 81.5% between 2020 and 2021, this appears to have been a misreading of the data.
Using a ProPublica database of the college’s federally mandated 990 tax forms — which require nonprofits like the Reed Institute to publicly declare their highest paid employees, trustees, and other officers — the Quest assembled data tables for presidential pay at Reed over the last eight years. That data shows clearly that the salary the college first declared for President Bilger in 2020 — $304,592 — was unusually low, falling more than $100,000 below both the outgoing pay of her predecessor, John Kroger, and the salary of Hugh Porter, then her Vice President.
This settles the question of President Bilger’s supposed astronomical raise quite simply: there wasn’t one. The appearance of such a sharp leap in her salary arises not from an actual increase, but from a return to normal (for Reed presidents) from the bottom of an unusual dip.
This, however, raises another question: why was President Bilger hired at such a low starting salary? Once again not all is as it appears. While most sections of the college’s 990 forms are filed with respect to the academic year — June 1st to June 1st, in Reed’s case — Section VII, which contains the data for the highest paid employees, must be filed with respect to the calendar year — January 1st to January 1st. Since President Bilger took office as president in July, as confirmed by her LinkedIn profile, the college’s 990 filing for that academic year only accounted for her compensation from July 2019 through January 1st, 2020 — half a year’s pay. The difference between that partial pay and a full year’s compensation caused the illusion that she had “doubled” her salary year over year.
While President Bilger has not taken a significant raise during her tenure, her pay has increased by about 20% compared to the outgoing salary of John Kroger, Reed’s last president. How unusual is that? To know for sure, we’ll need a frame of reference: I picked the Chronicle of Higher Education’s peer college tool, which is based on data that institutions are required to report to the US Department of Education. This is essentially arbitrary — one could just as easily compare President Bilger’s salary to that of college presidents at other colleges in Portland, or other small liberal arts colleges nationally — but it’s useful as a small sample group.
During the 2021-22 academic year, Reed listed 17 other institutions that it viewed as peers, and 19 named Reed as a peer. Of these, only 7 were mutual — Reed chose them and they chose Reed. I decided to remove Carleton College from the dataset because their current president, Alison Byerly, has only served a partial year, and thus her most recent pay filing, like President Bilger’s 2020 filing, is misleadingly low.
Compared to the college’s remaining six peers, the increase in pay for Reed presidents between 2019 and 2022 takes the lead by nearly nine percentage points, with the next highest raise — to Edward Wingenbach at Hampshire College — falling in at 11.8% compared to Reed’s 20.5%.
The significance of this result is, I think, up for debate. It’s important to note that several of these colleges — including Whitman and Occidental — underwent changes of leadership in the president’s office during this time period, just as Reed did. That means that some of these raises may be the result of hiring negotiations, or the general state of flux that always accompanies a passing of the torch in a significant position. However, it does suggest that pay for presidents of Reed College has accelerated at a rate slightly faster than normal, or at least faster than those of our immediate peer institutions.
Nevertheless, to return to the original question, the Chronicle’s implication of a meteoric raise for president Bilger was nothing more than misread data. To quote Executive Assistant to the President Dawn Thompson, “I can confirm that President Bilger has not received a 111% raise at any point during her time at Reed.”
Insight is the Quest’s irregularly syndicated column of investigative reporting, big data analysis, and news commentary. Have a burning question about Reed, or the world around us? Send it our way at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Declan Bradley