News that Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, the late founder and president of Touro College, recently topped The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual salary survey of non-profit university presidents raised a proverbial eyebrow both within and outside the Jewish community.

Dr. Lander, who died in February at age 94 and was known as a modest man who did not lead a life of excess, received a compensation package totaling $4,786,830 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. His salary for that year was $350,000; the additional $4.3 million was a one-time benefit package, not an annual salary.

“This was an entirely [unique] situation in that this was not a matter of a negotiated salary package granted to a university president,” Franklyn Snitow, secretary to the board of Touro College, told The Jewish Week. In 2007, Touro’s board of trustees hired Quatt Associates, a compensation consulting firm, to analyze Dr. Lander’s salary and benefits, since the board believed that Dr. Lander was woefully underpaid during his tenure.

Quatt Associates determined that Dr. Lander had been underpaid by $2.9 million from 1979 through 2008. The consultancy also recommended that Touro provide an additional $1.3 million in lieu of retirement and other benefits that Dr. Lander had not been paid. “The board recognized that after all these years of service and the growth of the institution, this was unfair,” Snitow told The Jewish Week. “This was an attempt to ameliorate a wrong that occurred. The board’s decision is reflective of their appreciation of a life of sacrifice for this institution.”

Asked why Touro allowed its president to be underpaid for so many years, Snitow said that the board, which had grown more sophisticated and more proactive in the past decade, came to the realization over a number of years. The decision to hire Quatt Associates to review Dr. Lander’s compensation was initiated by the board, he insists. “Dr. Lander would never have suggested this on his own,” he said. “That wasn’t within his frame of reference.”

In 2008, Touro’s board of trustees voted to provide Dr. Lander with $4.3 million in retroactive pay. At the time of his death, Dr. Lander had only received $900,000; the remaining payments would be paid out to his estate over an extended period of time. The university does not have a set plan in place for when the rest of the money will be paid out to Dr. Lander’s estate, according to the university.

The university rejected any suggestion that the payout had something to do with Dr. Lander’s death, explaining that he was alive and well when the decision was made.

Retroactive compensation is “unusual, though not unheard of, for long-serving college presidents,” according to The Chronicle, citing the example of Lynn University in Florida, which awarded its departing president, Donald Ross, with $4.5 million in 2004 to compensate for retirement benefits he did not receive during his 35 years at the helm of the university.

“Some people do balk at the large numbers,” says Andrea Fuller, the reporter for The Chronicle who worked on the compensation story. “We try to make it very clear that this is a one-time payment. He did not make $4.8 million a year. People usually understand that. We go out of our way to break it down and explain that.”

Until 2004, Dr. Lander received a salary that was less than $200,000. (“A second-year law associate makes more than that,” Snitow said.) His 2006 salary was $391,000 and in 2007, he received $340,696, as reported on the university’s 990 tax form. Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, received $1,211,429 in total compensation, including benefits, in 2008. John Sexton, the president of New York University, received nearly $1.4 million during that same time period.

Median pay for a president at a Master’s Institute, the educational category that includes Touro, was $352,257, according to the Chronicle article — very close to what Dr. Lander was earning in recent years.

To underscore Dr. Lander’s modesty, Snitow said the late president only stopped taking the subway to and from his house in Forest Hills, Queens, in recent years at the administration’s insistence, in large part due to his weakened eyesight. Up until he was in his 90s, he refused to fly first-class on his many trips to and from Touro’s branches in Israel and Europe. “He didn’t envision himself in that fashion. Everything was for the college,” said Snitow. He also noted that Touro’s executive offices on West 23rd Street, where Dr. Lander worked, are sparsely decorated.

“I paid a shiva call at Dr. Lander’s,” posted a commenter, esmith92000 on the blog vosizneias.com. “He lived like a pauper.”

Email: tamar@jewishweek.org