"I thought they are sending the wrong message when they are laying people off and cutting budgets and they are giving raises to the highest paid people on the campuses," said Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.
Besides paychecks, most presidents earn numerous perks, such as housing and a vehicle, that few others in state employment receive.
Two presidents said they will plow the raises back into their institutions.
Although Snow College President Scott Wyatt got the smallest hike, he said his $4,200 is going into a scholarship fund.
"This came out of the blue for me," said Wyatt, whose new salary is $155,000. "Until the employees at Snow College get a raise I won't accept one. I don't want to lead out in my institution on a salary increase."
The need for better pay became apparent as regents begin their search for Michael Young's successor as University of Utah president, which is being guided by a national consultant.
"The consultant said in an unabashed way that under the current pay we are not as competitive as we ought to be," Jordan said. "We compete with various institutions. The market sets a price. If you want to attract the best talent and best leaders you have to be at least striking range of the market."
The hikes, approved with no discussion, were calculated under a comparison compiled by the higher education commissioner's office.
"I'm unhappy to advise you that of our eight presidents, none is at the median salary of their peers," Jordan said. "No one is within 10 percentage points, and many are 20 to 30 percent below their peers."
The U.'s presidential base salary will be increased 3.3 percent to $360,000 still $65,000 or 18 percent below last year's average among the nation's doctoral-degree granting schools. However, deferred compensation that has been awarded in the past as an incentive to stay in the job could sweeten the pot for prospective U. presidents.
The regents have identified an informal goal of bringing presidential pay to within 90 percent of national norms. But that might be hard to achieve when faculty and staff salaries remain frozen, and lag behind what their peers earn in other states.
Southern Utah University President Michael Benson is setting up a scholarship to receive a portion of his $13,000 raise. The rest will pay off loans he incurred earning a master's degree in nonprofit administration over the past few summers at Notre Dame. But he supported the regents' move.
"I understand times are difficult, but we owe it to our institutions to have competitive pay so they can attract the very, very best," said Benson, who has been on a mission to upgrade the academic caliber of his Cedar City campus. Under his leadership, SUU faculty pay has not been stagnant, whereas pay freezes have been in place for a third year around the state. Benson used tuition hikes to increase faculty pay from 86 percent of the average at peer institutions to 95 percent over this time period.
The biggest hikes, worth about $20,000, go to the presidents of Utah's fast growing regional schools Dixie State College, which is gearing up for a transition to a university (12.5 percent), and Weber State University (9.5 percent).
Meanwhile, the commissioner of higher education is contracting with a national consulting firm to perform a more comprehensive analysis to inform a future program of presidential pay adjustments.
Utah presidential pay hikes, for 2011-12
University of Utah • $360,000 (3.3 percent)
Utah State University • $295,000 (4 percent)
Weber State University • $210,000 (9.5 percent)
Southern Utah University • $200,000 (7.3 percent)
Snow College • $155,000 (2.8 percent)
Dixie State College • $180,000 (12.5 percent)
Utah Valley University • $205,000 (6.2 percent)
Salt Lake Community College • $200,000 (4.1 percent)
Source: Utah System of Higher Education