Stepping Up the Competition

Last July, our CSU neighbor San Diego State University hired a new president — a feat we’re in the midst of here at UCSD ever since Chancellor Marye Anne Fox announced that she will end her eight-year tenure this June. The new SDSU president, Eliot Hirshman — previously provost and senior vice president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — was offered a hefty salary of $400,000. The amount is a $100,000 raise from his predecessor’s salary, and has the dubious distinction of being the highest salary in the CSU system. 

What’s worse, the CSU trustees hired him at this 34-percent salary increase on July 12, the same day they voted to increase student tuition by 12 percent.

As a result, a state senator has introduced legislation to limit UC and CSU executives. Senate Bill 967, introduced Jan. 13 by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), would prohibit pay raises within two years of state budget cuts or when tuition and student fees are increased. Additionally, the bill would cap the salaries of newly hired administrators to no more than 5 percent of their predecessor’s pay. If passed, the bill would be legally binding for the CSU system, but only a recommendation for the autonomous UC system.

Yee — who has been a vocal supporter of public higher education — introduced a similar bill in 2009 that passed in the state legislature but was later vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who recently cut 1 billion from higher education, probably wouldn’t do the same, considering that even he objected to Hirshman’s pay package.

But CSU and UC officials have defended such raises, claiming that they’re necessary for recruiting top talent. And while it’s difficult to swallow such overwhelming salaries when schools are fighting to keep libraries open, we have to admit that, looking at the compensation received by other public university admins nationwide, $400,000 doesn’t look so unreasonable.

At University of Alabama — a public school with a smaller overall budget than SDSU (685 million to 776 million, respectively) and smaller enrollment (30,500 to 31,700) — the president’s salary is $192,161 more than Hirshman’s. Across the board, presidents at other public universities are making the same, if not more, than the newly hired exec at SDSU. Regardless, the pay increases send the wrong message to students struggling to pay rising fees. More importantly, we simply can’t afford it. 

Such comparisons to other universities lose sight of the more dire circumstances occurring here in the floundering Golden State. The fiscal condition of California and its public schools is unique. 

Let’s look at the University of Alabama again. Despite $59 million lost in state appropriations, no employees at UA have lost jobs, had salary cuts or been furloughed, President Robert Witt said. With our cuts at 1 billion and counting, it’s safe to say that we are in a far different place. So rather than compare ourselves to other universities, we should be looking critically at what our much stricter budget can actually sustain, which is what this bill is asking us to do.

And it’s not as though this bill eliminates the possibility of raises altogether. The 5-percent wiggle room in the bill will allow us to hold on to our current talent, or seek executives on par with them. In essence, we can afford talent like National Medal of Science winner Marye Anne Fox now, so we should be able to find someone in her league at a 5-percent salary increase later.

Admittedly, there’s high competition for qualified university admin; we aren’t searching for replacements in a vacuum, especially if less-struggling systems are offering more. But the reputation of the California public university system and a more-than-decent salary given our hard times should be sufficient to yield a few willing candidates. Perhaps an increase in the percentage from a 5-percent cap to a 10-percent one would be a due compromise, allowing us to stay competitive nationally in the search for top executive talent while keeping an eye on our budget.

But it might be a moot point anyway. As admirable as Senate Bill 967 is, the timing is completely off. CSU plans to hire six new campus presidents this year, and it’s unlikely that the bill would become law before the hires take place.