CSU pay plan doesn't add up

Maybe the trustees of California State University need to take a remedial music class. Their tone-deafness is disturbing.

A few months ago, CSU drew widespread criticism for setting the salary for the new president of San Diego State at $400,000 — an increase of $100,000 over what his predecessor had received. Now, the trustees are expected to approve a new compensation policy that, if it had been in place at the time, could have paid him close to $460,000. Salaries for new presidents at other campuses also could increase under the policy.

Some aspects of the proposal make sense. Instead of lumping together all CSU campuses, it divides them into categories depending on how big they are and the size of their research budgets. To help set salary levels for the campuses in each category, it looks at similar universities nationwide.

The problem, as state Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor noted, is that the proposal groups some CSU campuses with universities elsewhere that have more than twice the research funding even though Cal State's primary function doesn't include research. "These institutions appear to unduly raise the corresponding average executive salary," Taylor wrote. The proposal also puts some campuses in the same category as universities with law and medical schools or with much larger endowments.

The trustees should delay the vote — especially after board Chairman Herb Carter on Tuesday suggested an alternate plan to limit increases to 10% — and find a more meaningful formula for setting salaries, one that is relevant to CSU's mission and sensitive to economic realities.

At the same time, CSU's severest critics are wrong to suggest that it must not raise executive salaries at all during hard times. A bill by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) would cap the salaries of Cal State presidents at 150% of what the chief justice of the California Supreme Court is paid — currently, about $343,000. It also would ban pay raises for presidents within three years of tuition hikes and require trustees to give first consideration to candidates within the system and the state.

Lieu's frustration with the trustees is understandable, but his proposed remedy would interfere unacceptably with academic operations and could harm the university.

CSU should avoid the academic arms race that has helped push up tuition nationwide, and instead hire the best-qualified candidates it can find while staying within its budget. More important, as Taylor suggests, is that the university should base pay on performance. A $400,000 salary could be perfectly justified for a president who excels at raising private funds, increases graduation rates or helps students earn their degrees faster. But Cal State trustees have done too little to justify the hefty salaries they are on the verge of approving.

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