Editorial: Pay for new Poly president a tough sell

We don’t doubt that California underpays its public university presidents. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education study released last year, the median compensation for top executives of public schools was $436,111 in 2008-09. Eleven presidents of public universities earned $700,000 or more.

Put in perspective, then, the $350,000 base salary and other perks granted to new Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong aren’t outrageous.

Yet it would have been more palatable to taxpayers had the California State University trustees paid him the same salary that former President Warren Baker earned after 31 years on the job.

That amount — $328,000 — would still have ranked Armstrong as one of the two top-paid presidents in the CSU system.

Granted, we’re only talking about a $22,000 difference between the $350,000 that Armstrong will earn and the $328,000 that Baker received.

But with California facing one of the worst economic crises in its history — and on the verge of asking voters to extend tax increases — this is not an auspicious time to bump up the pay for any position, particularly one so much in the public eye.

Not when CSU faculty, staff, students and their families are being asked to make multiple sacrifices by putting up with mandatory furloughs, fee increases and scheduling changes — including fewer course offerings — that make it tougher to graduate on time.

We’re concerned, too, about the ripple effect of this decision: Once one president is granted a higher salary, won’t other top administrators seek more as well? If so, that will only increase the burden on California taxpayers.

On the flip said, a top-notch university president who succeeds in attracting donations from the private sector can be a lifesaver in times of financial crisis. Armstrong should be able to fill that role; he has a strong track record as a fundraiser, having brought in $200 million for Michigan State’s College of Agriculture.

He’s also committed to increasing enrollment of minority students and honoring Cal Poly’s learn-by-doing philosophy.

If he delivers on all of that, it should go a long way toward silencing critics opposed to his pay.