The million dollar president

UAlberta buys president’s house for $930,000

University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera has had a very good year. Not only did she bag a whopping $936,000 in compensation and benefits during the 2009-10 fiscal year, but she also made a lucrative real estate deal − by selling her house to the university.

Yes, that’s right. The University of Alberta purchased Samarasekera’s home on July 1, 2009 for $930,000, according to the Edmonton Journal. The house was bought to be the official residence of the president and Samarasekera continues to live in it, although she now pays rent to the university.

A handful of other universities including the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto also own houses in which the president lives. The residences double as venues for meetings and social activities related to university business. The added bonus of housing is a perk that also comes in handy when recruiting new presidents, Brian Heidecker, chairman of the board of governors, told the Journal.  “The fact that you have a very good quality home available makes recruiting infinitely easier, and it makes the transition for the president much easier if they happen to be an outsider.”

What is odd about U of A’s decision to buy the home is not only that they purchased it from the current president, but that the home is off campus. Customarily, president residences are on-campus estates that are maintained by the university and conveniently located for university functions. U of A hasn’t provided housing for presidents for decades, and one of the last presidents to make use of an official residence (Walter Johns, who was president from 1959 to 1969) didn’t like being roused from his sleep by drunk students walking through campus in the middle of the night. Since then, presidents have lived off campus.

Before the sale, Samarasekera’s home was used for some university functions, and the university paid some operating costs to her. According to Heidecker, the house worked so well for these events that the board decided it should be owned by the university. “It was to our mutual benefit that we owned the house instead of Indira.” While I’m sure that the house serves its purpose as a venue to entertain just fine, it’s seems only prudent to look for other houses that would be more appropriate, and its unclear if the board shopped around before the purchase.

The Journal also makes the valid point that the timing of the deal could be seen as unfortunate by critics. When the sale was being arranged, U of A knew of looming funding cuts that would lead to layoffs, increased fees for students and unpaid furloughs for staff.

House sale news aside, the other interesting nugget of information in the Journal report is Samarasekera’s compensation. With a base salary of $479,000, her non-cash benefits pushed her total compensation to $936,000, making her one of the highest paid university officials in Canada by a wide margin. The top paid academic in Ontario in 2009, according to data released by the Ontario government, was Amit Chakma, vice-president academic and provost at the University of Waterloo, who bagged a whopping $737,640 in compensation plus $3,505 in benefits. The second highest paid university official was William Moriarty, president and CEO of the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation, who was paid $605,728 in 2009.

Photo: University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera