Higher Earning

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

FROM THE MOMENT HE TOOK OVER as president of Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., in 1985, Peter Diamandopoulos showed a taste for extravagance. His inauguration, recalls a former trustee, "could have rivaled the Queen of England's." And the new president had big plans: the transformation of Adelphi, a no-frills commuter school of 11,000 students, into an academically elite institution. During the past decade he has spent $43 million to renovate the campus and $250,000 to overhaul the soccer field, in part to allow the World Cup soccer team from his native Greece to practice there. He also hosted a meeting of Adelphi trustees 4,500 miles from the campus, in Athens.

But Diamandopoulos, 67, may have saved his greatest extravagance for himself. In the 1993-94 school year, his handpicked trustees awarded him $523,000 in salary, benefits and a deferred bonus, making him the second-highest-paid college president in the nation, runner-up only to John Silber of 30,000-student Boston University, who earned $564,000.

Coming at a time of sharply declining enrollment and increasing budget cuts at Adelphi (the faculty claim some departments are rationing paper), the trustees' largesse proved embarrassing. But there was more: Diamandopoulos was given use of a $1.2 million apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side—in addition to a four-bedroom Tudor residence just off campus.

"His vision is to create a very strong liberal-arts undergraduate college. Fine. But that's not what this is about," says Devin Thornburg, an education professor and a leader among the faculty, which recently voted 131 to 14 to seek Diamandopoulos's ouster "It's about personal aggrandizement that's at the expense of this place. We've lost a third of our faculty, a thin of our students since this president began." (In the last 10 years enrollment has dropped to 7,030.) The state attorney general is looking into allegations that Diamandopoulos is receiving "excessive compensation" for the head of a nonprofit institution.

His supporters are equally outspoken and blame most of the dispute on what one characterizes as burnt-out faculty hangers-on who have failed to keep current in their fields. "They were a dog school," says trustee George Lois, founder of a major Manhattan ad agency, of the university pre-Diamandopoulos. "He's ferreted out a lot of lousy teachers. He can be a gigantic pain in the ass. He can't abide fools." Boston University's Silber, also an Adelphi trustee, argues that Diamandopoulos has to work harder than the head of an Ivy League school "who is sitting on a $7-billion endowment and doesn't have the challenges he is facing." (During the same period one of the top-paid Ivy League presidents, Harold T. Shapiro of Princeton, earned $307,000.) But the faculty says the schools of nursing and social work at the 99-year-old university have long been well-respected. "We've always been known as a strong teacher-student institution," says Thornburg.

Born in Crete to wealthy landowning parents (he refuses to say more about them and declined to be interviewed by PEOPLE), Diamandopoulos came to the U.S. in 1948 and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1957. After teaching philosophy at Brandeis University for 15 years, he was named president of California's Sonoma State College in 1977, but was asked to resign by the board of trustees six years later after being accused of, among other things, disregarding seniority in faculty layoffs.

In search of a forceful leader in 1985, Adelphi trustees hired Diamandopoulos. "He came across as very strong, articulate and scholarly," says Leonard Nadel, a hospital executive and chairman of Adelphi's trustees at the time. "He was somewhat bombastic, but it was under control." Yet Nadel soon became disenchanted. "He's gotten rid of every single board member with any potential for opposition to him," says Nadel who, like other critics, was not renominated when his term expired. "He sees Adelphi as the playing field for his personal ambitions."

At the very least, the playing field seems to be shrinking. Although the present trustees point to healthy cash reserves, other indicators are hardly encouraging. Enrollment continues to drop—by 12 percent from last year to this—and the course catalog is getting thinner. According to Vince Passaro, Diamandopoulos's spokesman, courses have been cut as part of reshaping the university. "The school will be a smaller, more elite institution," he says. Yet elitism seems to be taking a toll. The endowment hovers at $9 million—compared-to, say, $49 million for Hofstra, another Long Island commuter college that is only slightly larger.

Caught in the feud are the students, some of whom would just like it to go away. "I'm concerned about my future with all this publicity," says sophomore Pavel Marinov, 21. "But the president shouldn't be getting the second highest salary in the country."

RON ARIAS and AMALIA DUARTE in Garden City

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