LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) --  University of Louisville President James Ramsey received total compensation of $2.8 million from the school's nonprofit foundation in 2014, while the university’s former provost Shirley Willihnganz received $1.1 million and Ramsey’s chief of staff, Kathleen Smith, received $859,181.

That’s according to the foundation’s most recent annual disclosure filed with the IRS on May 16.

Ramsey’s 2014 foundation pay is about $1 million more than the $1.8 million he received in 2013 but still less than the $3.3 million he got in 2012 -- a figure which raised eyebrows and ultimately prompted the state auditor’s office to get involved.

In an interview Wednesday, foundation officials were quick to point out that the figures listed in the tax form represent other things besides cash pay, including benefits, perks and future compensation the administrators won’t receive unless they stick around.

But a year ago, Ramsey told the university’s trustees in special meeting that his headline-grabbing foundation compensation of $3.3 million in 2012 was just a one-off event representing years of accumulated incentives.

“There has never been a year in which I have received $3.3 million in that year, or $2.4 million in that year,” Ramsey told trustees at the meeting on May 14, 2015. He added that he was “hurt” to see it reported in the news as if he actually earns that much on an ongoing basis.

The latest tax form shows Ramsey -- even after subtracting $362,500 that the foundation is required to list as future incentive pay -- received a little more than $2.4 million from the foundation in 2014. (The figure also doesn’t include Ramsey’s regular university salary of about $350,000 a year).

In addition to leading the university, Ramsey since 2002 has been president and a voting board member of its affiliated foundation, which receives all university donations and manages U of L’s $650 million endowment. The foundation is run by a board of directors which is separate from the university’s board of trustees.

Ramsey’s compensation from the foundation, among other things, prompted the state auditor’s office to examine the relationship between the university and the foundation. The report is expected this summer.

While comparisons are difficult, Ramsey’s 2014 pay appears to place him in the upper echelon of the nation’s public college presidents.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the top-paid public university president in 2014 was Penn State’s Rodney Erickson at $1.5 million. That same data, which the Chronicle says is reported by the institutions, lists Ramsey at $624,000 and appears to include only his base compensation.

(The Chronicle is now reviewing its listing for Ramsey’s pay based on information from WDRB News. Ginnie Titterton, a spokeswoman for the publication, said Ramsey’s situation is “a little different” than the typical arrangement in which an affiliated foundation covers a portion of a university president’s salary.)

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto earns $535,000 a year, plus bonuses of 10 percent or more and $170,000 annually in deferred pay if he stays on the job through 2018, according to a copy of his contract and university spokesman Jay Blanton.  

On Wednesday, Ramsey's chief of staff Smith arranged a meeting in which five of the foundation’s 14 board members – Chairman Bob Hughes, Joyce Hagen, William Selvidge, Salem George and Frank Weisberg – spoke in person or by phone with a reporter to defend the foundation’s compensation of Ramsey and other high-ranking administrators.

The board members were also among a group of seven that signed a letter about the topic that was emailed to U of L supporters on Wednesday.

Hagen, the foundation’s vice chairwoman, said Ramsey’s pay reflects his 14 years in the position and incentives for resisting overtures from other institutions to remain at U of L.

“What is now coming to fruition is a set of circumstances that would only pay if the president produced the results that we were hoping and dreaming of, and now those results have come to pass,” Hagen said.

The results, she said, include incoming students with higher ACT scores, physical improvements to the campus, more research money and more donations in support of the university.

Selvidge said the foundation pays Ramsey “pennies on the dollar” compared to what Ramsey raises in philanthropy.

“I am not sure we can find anybody that has the ability to fund raise – at the same he’s raising the academic standards – as Dr. Ramsey has,” he said.

One foundation board member who was not invited to the meeting, trustees chairman Larry Benz, declined to comment on tax form, saying the compensation information “speaks for itself.”

In addition to Ramsey, Willihnganz and Smith, the foundation and its related organizations reported paying other key U of L employees in 2014:

  • Dr. Donald Miller, director of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, $1.8 million
  • Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, the former CEO of the foundation’s Nucleus subsidiary, $334,184
  • U of L athletics director Tom Jurich, $255,917
  • Jason Tomlinson, the foundation’s chief financial officer, $232,414
  • Michael Curtin, the university’s former chief financial officer, $232,028. (Smith and Tomlinson said Curtin’s payment may have been related to an early retirement buy-out he accepted in 2013).

Growing role of tax perks

The foundation’s latest IRS disclosure sheds new light on a special perk called “tax gross ups,” which have significantly augmented Ramsey’s pay and that of other top administrators.

The foundation makes the "tax indemnification" payments to the IRS, the state of Kentucky and Louisville Metro government to cover the administrators’ personal income taxes.

The idea is to ensure that the administrators are left – after taxes – with the full face value of their pay.

Ramsey, for example, got gross ups on his $500,000 biannual grant of deferred pay and his $156,000 annual bonus, among other items, in 2014.

Ramsey’s gross ups totaled $867,074, and the foundation paid an additional $161,679 to taxing authorities on his behalf to cover under-payments from 2013, according to the form.

The foundation also reported gross up payments on behalf of Miller ($813,188), Willihnganz ($440,955) and Smith ($292,292).

Foundation officials said Wednesday that the gross-ups are standard practice for employees who get deferred compensation from the foundation. Hughes, the foundation chairman, said there are about 25 university employees in that group. 

Last year, a compensation consultant hired by the university’s board of trustees recommended doing away with the gross-up payments, calling them “not common practice.” Neither the trustee board nor the foundation board acted on the recommendation.  

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