As a practical matter, it makes little difference whether the new president of San Diego State University makes $100,000 more than his predecessor. Even if all that money were redirected toward full scholarships for incoming California State University students, it wouldn’t provide for even 16 of them, now that tuition and fees average more than $6,400.
Yet the decision last week to override the objections of Gov. Jerry Brown and pay Elliot Hirshman $400,000 — made at the same meeting where Cal State tuition was raised sharply yet again — might end up being one of the more expensive votes ever taken by CSU trustees. Within days, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) announced that he was reviving a proposal to limit executive salaries at Cal State and the University of California.
The trustees’ vote makes them look out of touch with the hardships currently suffered by students, their families and California taxpayers. It might well erode public and charitable support for the university. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sits on the CSU board and voted against the Hirshman salary, noted, “Plenty of people are watching, people we need as supporters.”
Hirshman might be worth the money. Maybe he’s a star at raising private donations and is expected to bring in far more money than the pay differential. Unfortunately, if that’s true, no one bothered explaining it to the public. Instead, Chancellor Charles B. Reed cited an executive-compensation study that found Cal State leaders tended to earn less than their counterparts elsewhere.
In the context of the state’s budget crisis, his reasoning was unconvincing. Fewer California students are attending college altogether because of the bad economy and the rising price of public colleges, according to a new study. It’s imperative that Cal State be allowed to hire top-quality administrators, but both CSU and the University of California should think more creatively about how to attract and retain such leaders. Universities across the nation cannot dig infinitely deeper into students’ pockets to finance salary inflation just because everyone else is doing it.
Yee’s heavy-handed solution isn’t the right one. He sponsored similar legislation in 2009, which was rightly vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Overall, the two public university systems have been successful at their missions; their woes stem more from underfunding than overcompensation. Considering that this month the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a terrible budget-related bill that forces school districts to make unrealistic revenue projections and ties their hands should they try to balance their own budgets, Sacramento is in a weak position to assert authority over the universities’ fiscal decisions.