It was a classic, let-them-eat-cake moment: California State University trustees last month agreed to pay San Diego State’s new president $400,000 per year — $100,000 more than the outgoing president earned. At the same meeting, they raised tuition an additional 12 percent.
More than a month later, the backlash continues. There have been calls to cap the salaries of presidents of the state’s public universities, at least during times of economic adversity.
One member of the CSU Board of Trustees floated another idea: Limit the amount that taxpayers contribute to a president’s salary, but allow nonprofit university foundations to supplement that amount.
That already is occurring to a limited degree: Cal Poly’s foundation kicked in $30,000 of President Jeffrey Armstrong’s $380,000 salary, and in the infamous San Diego case, the foundation there is contributing $50,000.
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That does lessen the burden on taxpayers, and it allows universities to offer more competitive wages in order to attract top candidates.
Yet trustees are missing the larger point of shared sacrifice.
When almost every other member of the college community is expected to suck it up though furloughs or hiring freezes or deferred cost-of-living increases or tuition increases, this is not the time to be looking at creative ways to sweeten presidents’ salaries. Not unless you want to see morale dip lower than the Dow on its worst day.
We question, too, whether boosting executive pay is in keeping with the mission of nonprofit foundations, which historically have provided student scholarships; money for buildings, stadiums and other capital projects; and funding for research projects and the hiring of additional professors.
Granted, the amounts contributed thus far — $30,000 here, $50,000 there — aren’t huge, especially when you consider that the Cal Poly Foundation reported $196 million in assets last year.
We recognize, too, that using foundation money to boost salaries of college presidents is common practice in other states.
But we would not like to see California depend on private donors to pay significant chunks of presidents’ salaries — especially since the issue of transparency has not been resolved.
While there has been an effort in the state Legislature for university foundations to be subject to the public records act, that has not been signed into law.
We’ve already seen instances at Cal Poly — remember Harris Ranch? —when donors attempted to influence academic policy. While that may be an isolated case, it’s a red flag nonetheless. To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, we believe college presidents at public universities should be paid by taxpayers — not private interests.
There also is an issue of fairness.
If college presidents are so grossly underpaid compared with their colleagues in other states, shouldn’t we boosting the salaries of all presidents?
If there truly is a huge disparity between what California offers its college presidents and what other states provide — to the point where it’s interfering with the quality of education — then it’s time for California taxpayers to suck it up and raise the pay for all public university presidents.
We believe, however, that a far greater threat to the quality of education lies in the budget cuts that are forcing colleges to trim staff, reduce enrollment, increase class size and raise fees to the extent that some deserving students are either priced out of school or forced to take on more debt in a time of huge economic uncertainty.
Until those problems are resolved, it’s time for the Chancellor’s Office to hold the line on presidential pay. If that requires a salary cap, so be it.