Critics call them “golden parachutes.”

They’re the lofty protections built into contracts that give university presidents and chancellors a high-paid, back-up position on the faculty at the same institution in case they are fired.

It’s standard operating procedure for university leaders, but it has drawn scrutiny in recent months as money for public universities in Louisiana continues to shrink.

At the same time, several Louisiana universities have endured a revolving door of top administrators. For example, since 2005, both LSU and Southern University have switched leadership at the top four times, not including interim leaders.

Typically, the tenure provisions allow the school leaders to join the faculty while either retaining more than 80 percent of their presidential salary or else being paid at the level of the highest faculty members in the department.

For example, the former head of LSU, John Lombardi, was fired by the Board of Supervisors in April 2012; at the time he had a compensation package of $601,000. But Lombardi didn’t officially leave LSU until October 2013, when he retired.

From May 2012 to October 2013, Lombardi enjoyed the benefits of a tenure contract that allowed him to retain employment in the Department of History, without actually having to teach any classes. The contract provided that he would retain about $400,000 of his salary until January 2013, at which point his salary was recalculated at a minimum of $30,000 more than the highest-paid faculty member in the department.

By contrast, the average salary of a fully tenured professor at LSU is about $120,000, according to data gathered by the American Association of University Professors.

Kevin Cope, president of the LSU Faculty Senate, said he thinks the average for all tenured faculty, who include associate professors up to full professors, at LSU is closer to $70,000 to $80,000.

Cope said tenure — which takes about seven years for faculty to achieve through research, publishing and teaching — is being used “inappropriately” for university presidents in most cases.

“Of course, tenure’s best and more important purpose is in protecting academic freedom, but there’s a degree of economic security that makes up for comparatively low salaries,” he said. “Look at the salaries that exist in the executive department of academia — they’re soaring into the six-figure range. The justification for tenure as a compensatory mechanism just doesn’t exist there.”

Cope also pointed out that these administrators are often promised spots in departments where there might not even be an opening.

Boards fight back

Last month, the issue was raised in a Southern University Board of Supervisors meeting when board members initially refused to approve a contract for the new Southern University at Shreveport chancellor. Among other issues, board members questioned the recurring inclusion of tenure in such contracts.

The Rev. Joe Gant, a Shreveport pastor and board member, said it’s unfair to force the universities to have to absorb these large salaries and unfair to the rest of the faculty who are paid substantially less.

“This is a problem for all of higher education,” he said. “We give these golden parachutes out to people, but we don’t have any more money left.”

Another board member, Tony Clayton, a West Baton Rouge-based lawyer, said in an interview that blanket tenure for presidents and chancellors should be reconsidered.

“It needs to be handled with caution. It’s just giving these people perpetual employment,” he said. “If the state has money problems, we can’t be giving these people access to a lifetime of employment.”

The board later approved an amended version of Shreveport Chancellor Rodney Ellis’ contract with an annual salary of $160,000. But the tenure clause remains. If Ellis is removed from his job before his contract ends in 2019, he can join the faculty and keep 80 percent of his salary until his contract ends. If he chooses to stay on the faculty beyond that point, he would be paid the average of the three highest-paid faculty salaries in the department.

Southern University System President Ray Belton said at the board meeting that offering that security to presidents and chancellors is standard in higher education.

“The role of a chancellor is a critical one,” Belton said. “It requires individuals to make very difficult decisions that could jeopardize their longevity in their position.” Offering tenure allows those individuals “to give consideration to these types of jobs,” he said.

Speaking for LSU, Jason Droddy, vice president of policy and external communications, said the safety nets are necessary to attract competitive candidates.

“When you negotiate to bring someone in, they understand these administrative jobs are very tumultuous,” he said. “And when you attempt to recruit, nationally, competitive people, it’s one of the factors we have to include and consider.”

Current LSU President F. King Alexander has the most generous negotiated return-to-faculty rates in the state. If he is removed from his job before 2020, when his contract ends, he gets to join the faculty and retain his full salary of $600,000 per year. After the contract expires, he could stay on indefinitely, earning the salary of the highest non-administrative faculty member in the College of Human Services and Education.

Droddy said LSU’s former executives generally don’t stick around long after they have been removed from leadership.

In June 2012, LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, a vocal opponent of Louisiana’s budget cuts to higher education, left for a job at Colorado State University, not exercising his tenure. Before him, Sean O’Keefe was pressured to resign in January 2008. He stepped down into a faculty position for about four months, where he collected a pro-rated amount of a $337,500 salary.

But other administrators have made use of their tenure.

Freddie Pitcher Jr. was chancellor of the Southern University Law Center for almost 13 years, coming from a legal background as a judge and an attorney. He stepped down last year as chancellor but is still paid about $175,000, which is 80 percent of his salary as chancellor.

Top jobs differ now

Dianne Irvine, the former general counsel for the University of Louisiana System, said tenure is becoming an outdated and potentially ill-fitting compensation tool for new university presidents.

In the past, she said, presidents would hold their post for long stretches of time; now, they frequently are moved out after three to five years. Presidents also used to commonly rise from the ranks of faculty and already had secured tenure through years of teaching and research.

In Louisiana, O’Keefe, a famed former NASA administrator, is the best-known higher education leader who came from outside of academia.

But nationwide, universities are welcoming nontraditional academics to lead their schools more frequently. For example, Baylor University’s president is Ken Starr, a former federal judge and attorney who was appointed to investigate President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

“The main qualifications for being a president have become much more like being the CEO of a corporation now,” said Irvine, who has also worked for Harvard University and the University of Guam negotiating president contracts. “Tenure is really less critical now. People are getting paid more, they don’t stay as long, and they’re selected on the ability to run an institution and less on academic credentials.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.