During a faculty strike this year, Chicago State University’s administration said “significant financial strain” prevented leaders from meeting professors’ salary demands. But last month the Far South Side university’s president, Zaldwaynaka Scott, was awarded a $50,000 bonus, bringing her total compensation for the year to more than $500,000.

Trustees voted to approve Scott’s bonus at a special meeting on July 24. The agenda did not list the vote but did include “President’s Evaluation” as a discussion item. State law requires that meeting agendas include the “general subject matter” of any item where a vote is expected.

In a recording posted last week, Chicago State Board of Trustees Chair Andrea Zopp can be heard justifying the bonus in part because of Scott’s handling of the faculty strike.

Zopp and President Scott declined interview requests, but Zopp said in an emailed statement, “The Board noted wide-ranging accomplishments in their evaluation, including a full approval from the institution’s once-in-a-decade accreditation review, multi-prong student success strategy that has raised CSU’s retention and graduation rates, and increased federal funding for the University and neighboring community.”

Professors at Chicago State are among the lowest-paid public university faculty in Illinois and walked off the job for 10 days in April to demand higher compensation. During the standoff, university administrators frequently cited the institution’s financial challenges, saying the faculty’s salary requests would endanger the university’s economic standing.

“CSU, like many universities across the country, is experiencing significant financial strain post pandemic,” the university said in a March statement. “In 2023, we are anticipating a budget gap – and [faculty union] leaders are aware of the University’s financial situation.”

The words rang hollow for many students and staff who questioned the university administration’s spending priorities, specifically noting the president’s salary. Scott is the fifth-highest paid of 12 public university leaders in Illinois, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. That count excludes the presidents of the Southern Illinois University and University of Illinois systems, which include multiple campuses.

At the nation’s public universities, the growth of presidential pay has vastly exceeded the growth of faculty pay, according to Judith Wilde, a research professor at George Mason University’s government and public policy school. Her research analyzed the salaries of flagship public university presidents and found, on average, they increased by $172,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2010 to 2019. Over the same time period, faculty compensation at these institutions increased by an average $646.

Wilde and her research partner attribute the large growth in presidential pay, in part, to the increased prevalence of corporate executives on university governing boards.

“Those kinds of executives work all the time with large and very complex compensation packages, so seeing something come in from a president that’s large and complex doesn’t really surprise them,” Wilde said. “There’s also a commonly held belief, in the corporate world especially, in pay for performance: The more you pay, the more you’re going to get out of that person.”

Wilde said research has shown this is not necessarily the case, but the belief persists. And she said trustees at Chicago State may have felt pressure to award bonuses and deferred compensation to recruit Scott and keep her on campus.

“You could possibly make a case that they needed to pay more to get a really good person and have that person stay,” Wilde said.

She also pointed out that as a Black woman Scott is a rarity. According to a survey by the American Council of Education, 72% of university presidents who responded identified as white and 61% identified as men.

“If she is doing a good job and serving not just Black students but a Black community, it would be especially important to keep her,” Wilde said of Scott.

Scott, an attorney and former university trustee, was hired as president of Chicago State in 2018 following rocky times for the South Side campus. A state budget impasse in 2016 decimated public higher education funding and the university had to lay off staff, temporarily throwing its accreditation into jeopardy. Scott was the fifth president or interim president to lead Chicago State since 2015.

Scott is now on her sixth year as president and her second contract, which started last year and stipulates a base salary of $425,000 in addition to $50,000 in deferred compensation paid out at the end of each fiscal year Scott remains president. The $50,000 bonus brings her earnings for the year to $525,000.

Under her contract, Scott is eligible for up to a $25,000 bonus each year but trustees can and did modify it this year and last. Scott also received a $50,000 bonus in 2022.

As of 2021, tenured professors at Chicago State University earned on average $88,000 a year, according to the National Education Association. During the strike, faculty won 3% salary increases for three of the next four years. Depending on state funding levels, faculty may receive 4% increases in the third and fourth years of their contract.

Chicago State is the only public university in Illinois that serves a predominantly Black student body. Seven in 10 students attending the school are Black.

“Our students come from Black and brown communities,” faculty union president Valerie Goss said at a rally during the strike in April. “I don’t understand why it is that our students have to endure faculty who are being paid less than faculty at any other institution. This is not an equitable picture.”

The April standoff between the faculty union and the university’s leaders was resolved after 10 days with professors winning increased compensation, but hard feelings over the president’s response — and her salary — remain.

Students and staff took issue with Scott’s attempts to continue classes while professors walked the picket line. The president offered to pay professionals without doctorates to teach courses, and in some cases students said they were required to sit through classes in which a non-faculty employee was asked to take attendance but no instruction took place.

When asked in June about criticism of her response to the strike, Scott told WBEZ, “There is a need for increased communication with our faculty around our resources.

“I cannot pay what some of the more more profitable institutions can pay,” she said. “But we can be as competitive as we can be in what we can do for our faculty.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.