Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday criticized leaders of California's public universities for recruiting highly paid "hired guns" from across the country to run campuses instead of looking for home-grown talent that might be willing to work for lower salaries.
The governor said officials at California State University and the University of California appeared in recent salary decisions to have adopted a mindset that market forces trump public service, but he said that must change, especially as the state struggles to close a budget deficit that has forced severe cuts.
The remarks were in response to the continuing public outcry over the decision by the Cal State Board of Trustees this month to approve an annual salary of $400,000 for Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State, at the same time the school increased annual student tuition by 12%.
Hirshman's salary — $350,000 from the state, with an annual supplement of $50,000 from the campus foundation — is $100,000 more than his predecessor's.
Cal State officials have argued that a competitive salary and benefits were necessary to attract a qualified candidate. But Brown suggested that plenty of officials heading key departments in the state were willing to work for far less and said they should be the model for public university administrators.
"I believe on the campuses now there are many people who don't make near that salary that should have been groomed for leadership," the governor said in an interview.
Hirshman, in a separate interview, said the offer to him came months before a new round of state funding cuts and tuition hikes. He traveled to Los Angeles to interview with the search committee in late April and visited the campus in early May, when he was offered the position. Hirshman also said he had been approached by several other institutions.
He would not say whether he thought his compensation was fair, nor would he speculate on whether he would have taken the job at a lower salary.
"What I would emphasize is that the compensation was determined by the chancellor and the Board of Trustees," Hirshman said Wednesday. "They looked at the national market and recent salaries in the Cal State system. And obviously, they looked at the fact San Diego State University is a rising public institution, and the reputation of the institution was very attractive to me in coming here."
But the trustees' decision to award Hirshman the lucrative contract continues to reverberate as several lawmakers prepared legislation that would establish stricter policies for setting compensation.
State Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) has already drafted a bill that would prevent Cal State from giving current and incoming executives raises above 10% in years when it also increases tuition.
"You don't get the money on the backs of students who may have to drop out of school because they can't pay the difference," Alquist said.
Cal State officials have pointed to a compensation study, commissioned by the university, which that found its campus presidents receive about 52% of the salary of their peers at public and private comparison institutions such as Arizona State University, Rutgers, the University of Connecticut and Tufts.
But the March survey, conducted by the consulting firm Mercer at a cost of $194,000, also found that Cal State offers far better health and retirement benefits than most of the other systems, reducing the gap to about 26%.
In a July 12 letter to the Cal State trustees, Brown criticized Hirshman's compensation package and the board's use of the salary survey to justify it.
Cal State officials said the compensation survey, which also included faculty, was used as a benchmark but didn't drive individual salary decisions.
"We want the best for our students and for our faculty and when we're out there recruiting on a national level, that is the reality of the marketplace," Cal State spokeswoman Claudia Keith said.
As the salary dispute has become a political hot potato, many observers said the larger issue of the severity of the funding cuts to Cal State and UC is being overlooked. The recently approved state budget slashed funding to each system by $650 million, with additional reductions possible.
William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, described as "flat-footed" the two university systems' recent decisions to raise tuition and the salaries of highly paid executives in the same board meetings. (UC leaders this month also approved a nearly 10% tuition hike for the fall, at the same time granting a large pay raise to the chief executive of UC San Francisco's medical center.)
"But the real problem is that the governor's strategy with higher education is simply to give them less money, and I don't think the systems have been good with how to make strategic cuts," Tierney said. "The governor's letter … wins political points, but it doesn't solve the education problem."