A Leave of Absence

This year alone, presidents at four out of 23 California State Universities have retired, and another five are projected to retire in the coming year from San Francisco, Northridge, Fullerton, San Bernardino and the California Maritime Academy. According to Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed, there has never been a time in the university system’s history when there were this many administrative vacancies and retiring employees.

The reason for this sudden trend has been speculated to correlate with the high number of college professionals at retiring age — the mean age of college presidents is 61. The executive position has also become increasingly stressful over the last few years due to the poor economy and its relentless toll on the California education system. The Cal State system enrolls a staggering 412,000 students, the largest amongst other four-year colleges, and is facing funding cuts of around 650 million dollars. Potential cuts will total nearly 100 million dollars and a 21 percent tuition increase is in the near future. Presidents who are hired at a time like this must be able to deal with a slew of problems — student and faculty anger over tuition hikes, limited class selection and lower wages — all while under the harsh criticism of the board of trustees.

There is no doubt that the replacements found for Cal State campuses must be qualified to change the status quo, and the current selection process has candidates jumping through hoops. The Cal State Board of Trustees along with the Board of Trustees’ Special Committee on Presidential Selection and Compensation decides on the president after a primary and secondary review panel as well as a campus visit.

There has been a movement to eliminate the campus visit to streamline the application process, which is important to ensure that positions are filled by the upcoming school year. Some argue that this will increase anonymity in the selection process, but there are other ways to bring a face to a resume efficiently, such as the use of conference video calls. Selection of new presidents must be prudent, yes, but the process must be efficient enough to account for the dire demand for presidential replacements.

In the past, university trustees have increased college presidents’ salaries to sky-high amounts in order to attract more distinguished administrators. This summer, Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State University, was offered an annual salary of $400,000, a $100,000 pay increase from the previous president. Steep salary increases may attract a wider and perhaps more promising applicant pool, but California salaries are by no means low. Other states are facing the similar budget cuts, and according the Chronicle of Higher Education’s executive compensation database, California’s executive salaries are in line with other states that have major public higher education systems like Texas and New York. The managing principal of AGB Search, Jamie Ferrare, said that the number of applicants vying for these top positions makes the competition intense; attracting candidates to the position isn’t the issue, it is all about state universities choosing the right person.

In response to this salary raise, many lawmakers including Gov. Jerry Brown proposed legislation that limits the power trustees have on setting compensation for campus administrators. This will ensure that others also have a say in how much Cal State administrators get paid, to avoid drastic decisions made solely by the board of trustees.

Ultimately, well-experienced presidents are stepping down from their positions and it is important that Cal State Universities find suitable replacements to run their campuses. UCSD will face a similar situation this coming year when Chancellor Marye Anne Fox steps down after her seven-year term. It is crucial that schools focus on finding strong leaders for their campuses by streamlining their selection procedures and being realistic about the fact that perfect replacements will not be hired just by increasing monetary compensation.

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