San Diego State’s new president Elliot Hirshman has had a whirlwind first three weeks in office largely because of a controversy surrounding what some consider his unnecessarily high annual salary compensation at a time of ever-increasing state budget cuts to higher education.
Two weeks ago, the California State University Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition by 12 percent and moments later approved Hirshman’s $400,000 starting salary, making him the highest paid president in the CSU system.
The amount is $100,000 more than that of his predecessor Stephen L. Weber at the end of his 15 years at SDSU. It also includes $50,000 in funds from The Campanile Foundation, an auxiliary of the university that collects philanthropic contributions from donors to support “the brightest young minds in the pursuit of higher education.” One of The Campanile Foundation’s main duties is to help fund student scholarship programs.
Almost immediately after the July 12 CSU Board votes, criticisms about the decisions began to fly on Twitter and other social media networks.
It was announced at the board meeting held at Long Beach headquarters that Gov. Jerry Brown had sent a letter to CSU Chairman Herbert Carter.
“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 of everyone else,” Brown wrote.
As a result of the governor’s letter, the board decided to establish a subcommittee to look into how administrators’ salaries are set. But the letter didn’t deter them from approving Hirshman’s salary.
That day, Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) tweeted, “The CSU Trustees who voted for $400k SDSU Prez salary should resign now. Gov Brown can then appoint trustees not out of touch with reality.”
Hirshman responded to The Daily Aztec’s written questions by highlighting what he considers to be a critical issue with California’s legislature.
“If one looks at the history especially the recent history, of large tuition increases in the CSU, there is a clear relationship between reductions in the state appropriation (e.g., this year’s $650 million reduction in state appropriation) and the large percentage increases in tuition,” he wrote. “Moving forward, we must work with all parties in California to ensure there are not substantial reductions in the state appropriation. This is absolutely critical to limiting tuition increases.”
A.S. Vice President of External Affairs Krista Parker echoes Hirshman’s comment.
“You need to understand that the legislators gave us this budget,” she said. “I don’t ever support raising tuition but the alternatives we were left with were worse. There could have been possible layoffs or limiting access to CSU schools.”
Lieu submitted a letter on July 13 to Chairman Carter in which he called on the CSU to reverse its decision.
“You, your Chancellor, and your administrators will no longer be able (to), with a straight face, talk to the Legislature about CSU budget cuts when you just gave a massive raise for one of your administrative positions,” he wrote. “The students, faculty and people of California deserve better.”
Lieu said he has not received a response from Carter but he hopes to.
“It’s a matter of priority,” Lieu said. “Increasing the salary of an administrator should be one of lowest priorities with the state of our current budget cuts. Actually it shouldn’t be a priority at all, especially while increasing tuition.”
Working for legislative change
In the days following the CSU’s salary decision, Lieu and other state senators have come forward to propose new legislation and highlight current bills.
When the new legislative session meets on Aug. 15, Lieu plans to introduce a bill that will cap public university administrators’ salaries.
“There are two points,” he said. “First, you cannot increase salaries in the same year or two years after there are state budget cuts to the UC/CSU system. Second, regardless of the situation, we’re going to place a cap on salaries so that they’re no more than 150 percent that of the salary of the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Lieu said he’s not yet wedded to the salary of the chief justice. “It could easily be that of the California governor,” whom he mentioned makes less than Hirshman.
Sen. Elaine Alquist also expressed discontent with the recent board decisions.
“Top-level CSU employees ought not to be given raises on the backs of higher tuition,” she said. “Giving out egregious salary increases on the same day as increasing student tuition sends the wrong message to the future leaders of the state, such as those attending San Diego State.”
She is working with Sen. Alan Lowenthal on SBX1-25 which would prohibit the CSU from providing administrator compensation increases of more than 10 percent using money from the general fund if in the same year there has been a tuition or fee increase.
Sen. Leland Yee, also running for mayor of San Francisco, plans to reintroduce a bill that previously passed the legislature in 2009 but was vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lieu said the senators may coordinate to make sure their individual pieces of legislation don’t conflict.
On the home front, Parker said she plans to work with SDSU’s Lobby Corps to create legislation that would bring more funding to the CSU. She said it’s still in the preliminary stage but the idea is to add a box on state tax forms where taxpayers can opt to have a portion of their returns go directly to the CSU or they can make a donation.
Speaking of donations
Last month, The Campanile Foundation’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to supplement Hirshman’s salary in the amount of $50,000 annually using unrestricted donations.
The minutes for the meeting conducted in June have not been finalized according to SDSU’s Vice President of Marketing and Communication Jack Beresford, however, he said 19 of the 36 members of the board were present at the time of the vote.
“The board took this action because they believe it’s an investment in a dynamic new president who can take the university to the next level of success,” Beresford wrote. “He will also lead the final phase of SDSU’s comprehensive fundraising campaign which aims to raise $500 million before its completion.”
Hirshman wrote that he plans to prove the salary decision was in the benefit of students in one way in particular.
“I will be working with colleagues throughout the university to aggressively pursue private funds to support scholarships and student success initiatives,” he wrote. “We have had great success in these critical areas and my intent is to build on, and advance, our current initiatives.”
SDSU professor of chemistry and biochemistry William Tong sits on the foundation’s board of directors and voted in favor of supplementing Hirshman’s salary.
“The Campanile Foundation board members are some of the major donors of the university and they enthusiastically support this salary supplement,” he wrote in an email.
As the sole faculty representative on the board, Tong said he has not heard negative comments from his colleagues about Hirshman’s salary approval. He believes this is because it’s still much lower than that of his peers.
“San Diego State is a major research university with a national reputation and we deserve a president who can lead us to the next level of success,” he wrote. “(We’re) the flagship campus in the CSU system and our president deserves a salary equal to or better than those of other CSU campuses.”
In addition, Lieu suggested that the foundation may want to cover $100,000 annually instead of $50,000.
“It’s not preferable but it’s better than the taxpayer or student paying for it,” he said. “I still don’t think donors would like their money going to (Hirshman). I would think they want it to go to students, not executive salaries.”
The president’s office declined to comment on the senator’s suggestion but Parker dismissed it as a bad one.
Lieu added that students may want to visit the governor’s local office to express their outrage about the tuition increases and to ask the CSU board to rescind their action on Hirshman’s salary.
Parker said the A.S. has no plans to visit the governor’s office or to ask the board to rescind their decision.
“Student input has not been as high as normal but I encourage them to bring their concerns to me,” she said.