The tone-deaf trustees

Their decision to hike a president’s salary could hurt the CSU

Symbols are important in politics, which is why the California State University trustees are taking heavy flak these days for raising the salary of the president of San Diego State University by $100,000, to $400,000, on the very day last week when they raised student tuition by 12 percent, or $1,000 annually, the second raise this year.

In practical terms, $100,000 represents an investment in a new president, Elliot Hirshman, who is expected to increase the amount of SDSU’s private funding significantly from the $54 million raised in 2009-10, already the highest amount in the CSU system. Also, as Trustee Bob Linscheid, of Chico, pointed out to us, “there’s a shortage of talented people willing to come to California knowing public higher education is not a priority.” He’s no doubt right about that, but it’s a hard message to sell to the public.

What people see in the trustees instead is a group that is tone deaf at a time when millions of people are out of work, faculty are facing furloughs and layoffs, and students and their families are looking at skyrocketing costs. As Gov. Jerry Brown said in a message to the trustees, “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.”

The big worry is that the Hirshman decision will hurt the CSU’s standing in the Legislature, making it harder to convince lawmakers to restore funding when the state’s economy improves. Already moves are afoot there to limit the salary-setting authority of the trustees.

A silver lining here is that the trustees have established a special committee—Linscheid is a member—to examine other options for picking presidents. One option, he said, would be to establish a method for selecting candidates from within the CSU system—either small-school presidents who want to move up to larger schools, or vice presidents ambitious to hold the top job.

If nothing else, he said, the Hirshman decision has given the trustees the justification for looking at another option. That’s some compensation, we guess, but only if it proves to be productive.