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.