State budget cuts mean ... executive salary increases?

Jul 14 2011 Published by under Academia, Current events, Personal

The California State University Board of Trustees met July 12. As expected, they approved yet another student fee increase. Because, how could they not when they're facing down at least a $650 million budget cut for the 23-campus system?

Not so expected (at least by those of us not on the inside) was their vote to pay Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State University, an annual salary of $400,000. Because ... remember that $650 million budget cut for the 23-campus system?

How is this supposed to work again?

It should be noted that California Governor Jerry Brown sent a letter to the Board of Trustees urging them not to approve this salary increase. The letter (PDF here) is so clear in identifying the problem that I'm going to quote the whole thing:

As this Board well knows, California is still struggling to overcome the effects of the great recession which forced tens of billions of dollars in state budget cuts.

The state university system has been particularly hard hit with painful sacrifices on the part of faculty and students alike. As trustees, you have to make tough calls and strive as best you can to protect our proud system of higher education.

It is in this context, and prompted by the salary decision you are about to make today, that I write to express my concern about the ever-escalating pay packages awarded to your top administrators.

I fear your approach to compensation is setting a pattern for public service that we cannot afford.

I have reviewed the Mercer compensation study and have reflected on its market premises, which provide the justification for your proposed salary boost of more than $100,000. The assumption is that you cannot find a qualified man or woman to lead the university unless paid twice that of the Chief Justice of the United States. I reject this notion.

At a time when the state is closing its courts, laying off public school teachers and shutting senior centers, it is not right to be raising the salaries of leaders who -- of necessity -- must demand sacrifice from everyone else.

If it were me writing the letter, in the last paragraph I might also mention the already deep cuts to the CSU (many of which I'm sure have been obvious to the students at SDSU, as they have been to students here at SJSU). This is a situation where maybe President Hirshman and the trustees are banking on the students not following state news, because if they do keep up on current events, it might get awkward.

Of course, it's being reported that some of the 12 trustees who voted to approve Hirshman's compensation package (3 voted against it) say it's necessary to pay him so much because of "the complexity of running a major university and the salaries that other university presidents around the country are paid". This strikes me as a variant of the old saw that "we need to pay administrators so much because of how much they could be making in the private sector".

Maybe it's the larger class sizes, the absence of funds for graders or for work-related travel, or possibly the fact that the existence of my public-employee pension (which, given the way this job is going, I might not live long enough to use) has been used to demonize me and other CSU faculty like me in the minds of the voters, but I need to call shenanigans on this.

Could university administrators be making buckets of money in the private sector? It's not clear to me that the private sector is doing a lot of hiring these days. But if they are, I'm inclined to tell those administrators, Vaya con Dios. Do what you must to feed your family, to fortify your compound, to get your yacht ready for the sailing season, to find fulfillment, but right now we can't afford you. In a perfect world, maybe we could pay you what you feel you're worth, but this, my dear, is nothing like a perfect world.

I'm sure your cash-strapped students can fill you in on some of the local details of its imperfection.

In the meantime, it's worth noting that this newly increased salary doesn't put President Hirshman close to the top slot of best-compensated California public employee. That honor goes to UC Berkeley football coach Jeff Tedford, at $2.3 million a year, with UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland ($2.1 million) a close second.

For comparison, Jerry Brown earns $173,987 a year to be Governor of the state.

14 responses so far

  • gerty-z says:

    It blows my mind that a board could actually make this argument with a straight face. I hope this gets a LOT of media attention.

  • Karen says:

    O000, this makes me see so red I can barely type. I've been A CSU school grad student for the past few years, and the lack of money for even basic tools in my department is infuriating. My first degree was obtained in 1980 in a different STEM field from my current one. That was from a UC school, and not being a flagship campus we were poor there and then... but we weren't *destitute*.

    So I've taken undergraduate and graduate courses; I've seen how the literature has evolved to expect the easy availability of certain tools; and yet my small department can't afford even the basics. What we could buy, with even a quarter of one year's increase in the salary of the new SDSU president...

    I also worry about the undergrads, especially. The college that was supposed to be, by definition, there for them is being priced out from under them. It's frightening to watch.

  • Karthik says:

    Speaking of basketball coaches, the UC Berkeley basketball franchise made a $1.15 million profit for the school last year. The UCLA franchise made a $6.05 million profit for their school.

    Of course that's nothing compared to Texas football which pulled in $68,830,484, but still.


    • Neurotic says:

      Don't you mean a $______ (fill in the blank with million$) profit for the Athletic Department(s)?

      • Karthik says:

        Kind of. Every million the football team brings in is a million less the school has to pull out of its operating budget for sports like water polo, soccer, lacrosse. Cutting football would cost the school a sum equal to the profit, since most other sports lose money. Of course you could argue that the state shouldn't be spending money on soccer, but their coaches also don't get paid millions so it's a slightly different situation.

  • Karthik says:

    Sorry -- you mentioned Cal football. That made a $5.9 million profit for the state.

  • vanilla says:

    So apparently there is no bottom to the rabbit hole. Down, down, diddy down, down.

  • FrauTech says:

    My theory is the board supports it for the same reason poor southerners support never taxing millionaires. There are plenty of of low class people who seem to think they will hit it rich one day and therefore don't want to tax their future wealthy selves. The board members obviously have a much better chance at this, but it's probably a quid pro quo good ol' boys kind of deal where they all agree to bump up one another's salaries. Distasteful.

  • Neurotic says:

    Hmmmm. Just like the Real Corporate World: give me a mulligan and I'll give you one. Don't play their games in their sandbox? You will be a transparent slave ant that can be killed at any moment with one grind of a well soled shoe.

  • Isabel says:

    "the same reason poor southerners support never taxing millionaires. "

    Do you have actual evidence for this assertion, made on a daily basis around here? That "poor southerners" support x for x reason? Many use this simplistic, unsubstantiated and condescending belief as an excuse for some really despicable bigotry on the science and academic blogs. Maybe it's time, especially on a blog that includes the word "ethics" in the title, for a more nuanced view.

  • Aaron says:

    I'm not sure if you already talked about this article but the contrast in the growth rates between admin and faculty is astounding.

    "For example, based on data in the California State University Statistical Abstract, the number of full-time faculty in the whole CSU system rose from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, an increase of only 3.5 percent. In the same time period the total number of administrators rose 221 percent, from 3,800 to 12,183. In 1975, there were three full time faculty members per administrator, but now there are actually slightly more administrators than full-time faculty. If this trend continues, there could be two administrators per full-time faculty in another generation."


  • becca says:

    Definitely not just California.

    Technically, isn't the president's job mostly as a chief fundraiser? I suppose that if he demonstrated that he brings in 10X the salary they want to pay him, above and beyond whatever they were taking in before he came aboard, I'd think it's ok. Otherwise it's pretty skeezy.

    Aaron- fair enough, but how many of those are doing IT tasks that faculty don't want to handle? Or are there because of increased legal complexities/regulatory pressures (e.g. financial aid staff, disability offices, more complex research compliance, ect.)? I know what the numbers would look like for some colleges, but I'm curious what type of 'administrative bloat' is most at play in California.

    • Pat Cahalan says:

      > How many of those are doing IT tasks that faculty
      > don't want to handle?

      Valid point.

      How many of *those* are handling IT tasks that people don' t actually *need*, but insist are necessary? IME, that's a non-trivial percentage 🙂