For years the California State University system’s Board of Trustees has been the villain everyone loves to hate. Last year, the board was criticized for increasing student tuition while giving San Diego State’s new president, Dr. Elliot Hirshman, a substantial pay raise. Of course, the selection of Hirshman was arrived at with marginal university input, all while maintaining incredible indifference toward faculty and staff unions.
All criticism of the board eventually settles on one key idea: The board is flawed because it is an unelected and undemocratic organization. Of the 25 members on the board, 21 are appointed to their positions, and none are directly elected. Critics argue because they’re not directly elected by voters, the trustees don’t feel the need to bend to the will of the people.
However, this political independence is not the board’s flaw, but rather one of its greatest strengths. When the CSU system was created, it was required by the California Education Code to “be entirely independent of all political and sectarian influence.” Academics shouldn’t have to bend to the will of the majority, but rather stand free of all outside influence.
The problem with the Board of Trustees isn’t that it’s nonelected. The problem is the CSU system has grown far beyond the board’s ability to effectively manage.
It’s easy to see how the CSU system has grown far beyond the board’s scope. The system as we know it today was established in 1960 by the California Master Plan. Since then, seven new CSUs have been added and the total student population in the system has more than quadrupled, from 95,000 to 412,000. Today the CSU system commands a budget of more than $4.7 billion, larger than the GDP of Sierra Leone. SDSU itself has a budget of more than $350 million.
The Board of Trustees, now an antiquated and heavily bureaucratic organization, was simply not designed to deal with a system of this magnitude. The universities themselves have grown from small professional schools to huge research and doctorate institutions.
The solution is simple: The board should free individual schools to become nearly autonomous schools, with total control of their own tuition, administrative selections and union agreements. Individual universities would then be able to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities facing them, without having to wait for the lumbering CSU system to react. This flexibility would benefit schools greatly in dealing with the challenges of the future and benefit students by improving the quality of education, while also reducing tuition costs.
By allowing individual CSUs to set their own tuitions and compete directly with each other, there would be more pressure to keep costs and tuitions to a minimum. Smaller and less established universities, such as CSU San Marcos, could compete for students by offering less expensive tuition fees than other CSUs. Larger, more established schools, such as SDSU, could compete by offering a world-renowned education and a growing research program, even if it comes at a slightly more expensive cost. This internal competition would do more to control increasing tuition and improve the quality of education than the board could ever hope to achieve.
Newly independent universities would also be free to form stronger ties with their communities. A closer SDSU partnership with San Diego County could provide a valuable source of additional revenue in case of future budget cuts.
Speaking of freeing extra revenue, redistributing responsibilities away from the board to the university means a slashing of the exorbitant salaries of members of the board, many of whom make annual compensation of more than $400,000. A more independent CSU system would mean the board could drastically reduce the size, and cost, of the system’s bureaucracy. What is left can then focus on what it does best: ensuring high academic standards are being met by all of the CSUs.
The Board of Trustees served higher education in California well for more than half a century. It grew the CSU system into one of the best state university systems in the world. But now, instead of promoting this same growth and adaptability, the board is turning the system into an unwieldy giant unable to accommodate changing academic, demographic and financial conditions.
It is time to cut the CSUs loose from the board and allow them to grow and change as independent institutions.