When times are tough it’s easy to point to a distant individual or group of decision-makers — preferably mysterious and bureaucratic — as a deserving scapegoat.
No one can dispute that times are tough in the realm of California education, especially for public universities. We students and faculty of the California State University system know all too well the pain of furloughs, increasing tuition and evaporating programs. And it certainly doesn’t take much mental effort to characterize the California State University Board of Trustees as an out-of-touch oligarchy.
But now the trustees have finally given us a reason to tone down the biting criticisms and demonstrations – for the moment at least. We’ve all been justifiably outraged about executive compensation in the midst of mounting tuition costs and painful budget cuts, with the salary of our very own new president, Elliot Hirshman, as the spark that lit the fire. Now the puppet-masters have thrown us a bone, and a rather juicy one.
In a unanimous vote at last Wednesday’s board meeting in Long Beach, the trustees adopted a new policy limiting university presidential compensation. It caps raises for CSU presidents at a 10 percent increase of the outgoing president’s salary, with a hard ceiling at $325,000 in public funds; significantly lower than the compensation of several CSU presidents, including Hirshman’s $350,000.
Of course it would not impact previously determined pay, nor would it limit the contributions of campus foundations. At SDSU, The Campanile Foundation contributes $50,000 to bring Hirshman’s salary to a sizable $400,000.
I believe the mounting pressure from students, faculty, citizens and yes, even state politicians, had a large role in last week’s unanimous board decision. Actions from groups as diverse as the California Faculty Association, occupy-affiliated student groups and state senators such as Ted Lieu — who even sponsored a bill with the goal of capping CSU executive salaries — all certainly deserve immense credit for this promising change.
But I fear that unless a major refocusing occurs at a more general level, the benefits of the new policy will be severely limited. Issues are never quite as simple as they appear and blame is rarely neatly concentrated in one bureaucratic unit. I wouldn’t hesitate to call the trustees out on gross misallocation of resources, but such decisions would hardly be noted by the general public in times of plenty. These are not times of plenty. T
herefore, every small decision on the allocation of scarce resources from an ever-shrinking budget is tediously scrutinized. And rightly so; now more than ever wise leadership and prudent choices are necessary to maintain our higher education system. But protesting against the Board of Trustees for executive compensation is like fighting for tiny scraps from the budgetary table. What we really need is a bigger slice of the pie.
I’m constantly struck by the hypocrisy of Californians, and Americans more generally, who demand the world yet shoot down every attempt at funding the programs they so desperately desire. Of course there’s something to be said for running a tight ship and trimming the fat from unnecessary programs, but sometimes the money just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to be willing to pay for something worth having.
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed initiative for the November ballot is an opportunity to do just that. Voter approval would increase sales tax by a half-cent and income taxes for those earning more than $250,000 a year for the next five years. The money would go directly to K-12 and community college education. Although the CSU system is not a direct beneficiary, the new cash flow would certainly free a much larger budget helping for higher education.
And despite the typical everything-for-nothing attitude of California taxpayers, the initiative may actually have a chance of passing. A recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California shows 72 percent of adults and 68 percent of likely voters as inclined to approve. Perhaps California education has finally reached such a sad state of affairs that people are disgusted enough to make a small sacrifice to avoid billions more in cuts.
I’d like to proclaim rampant individualism and short-sightedness are on the run, but I think it’s more likely this temporary tax increase is nothing but a fluke. California began its crusade to defund education years ago, Proposition 13 being the death blow. I don’t know who thought funding schools based on local property taxes was a good idea in the first place, but when Proposition 13 was approved in 1978, California voters decided avoiding property tax increases was more important than a robust education system.
That system was widely regarded as the best in the nation back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now it is ranked close to the bottom in student achievement. These issues may be more relevant in the realm of K-12 education, but they are useful in illustrating the current attitude toward education: all talk, no money. What we need now to remain competitive, to give ourselves a chance to crawl out of the hole we’re in, is to look to the future. Education is the future. CSU students are the future. It’s time we looked at investing in them as a responsibility rather than a punishment.