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CSU unveils new list for presidential salary comparisons


Which colleges and universities should the California State University system compare itself with when deciding how much to pay its campus presidents?

That’s a question a special committee of CSU trustees has been discussing since the controversy surrounding a July decision to pay new San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman $100,000 more than his predecessor on the same day the board approved a 12 percent increase in student tuition.

Gov. Jerry Brown has criticized the lists of peers universities used to gauge market pay rates, saying the lists are rigged to make it look like university presidents are underpaid. CSU trustee Roberta Achtenberg told the Senate Education Committee in September that the new list they were working on would put “downward pressure” on salaries.

CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed said he has spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about presidential compensation since the summer.

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“Nothing that I have done in the 14 years that I have been here have I spent more time on than this one issue since July," he said. "Nothing has bothered me more than this issue since July."

But the proposed new list [PDF] of peers that Reed unveiled yesterday still paints the same picture – that CSU presidents are underpaid compared with their peers. Cash compensation for CSU leaders lags behind the averages at the new peer universities by 15 percent to 26 percent for all but eight of the 23 campuses.

Reed and several trustees on the CSU Special Committee on Presidential Selection and Compensation said the new lists validated the university system's executive compensation decisions as reasonable.

“There is an underlying premise that what we have been doing is broken, and I reject it,” said trustee William Hauck. “And I think today the work that’s been done by the chancellor and the staff with respect to particularly presidential salaries documents that what we’ve been doing has been conservative, reasonable (and) prudent.”

But Cecil Canton, associate vice president of the California Faculty Association and a professor of criminal justice at CSU Sacramento, said the list was crafted to fit CSU executives’ perspective.

“It’s a self-serving list,” Canton said. The faculty association has criticized CSU executive pay packages as excessive.

The new list was created by Reed with two outside consultants: Chuck Knapp, former president of the University of Georgia, and Jamie Ferrare, principal with a higher education executive search firm, AGB Search.

Reed also said yesterday that he had asked the CSU presidents themselves to name the institutions with which they would compare their campuses. Some but not all of those recommendations made it into the final list, he said. That rankled Canton.

“Why would you pick somebody that would be lower (in salary)?” he said.

The new list categorizes the CSU campuses into four groups, from small to large campuses. For each group, Reed chose peer universities with similar total budgets, research funding, total enrollment, low-income student enrollment and graduation rates. All are public universities.

At the top end, San Diego State University has its own peer group of 11 colleges, including Temple University, George Mason University and the University of Oregon. San Diego State was set apart in its own tier because it has the biggest budget and largest research funding of any of the CSU campuses, Reed said.

The data shows Hirshman’s $400,000 salary – which includes $50,000 in donor money from the university foundation – is about 15 percent lower than the average of the peer group, which is $458,360.

The second tier includes six CSU campuses, such as CSU Fullerton, San Francisco State and San Jose State, and they are compared with universities like Kent State, Georgia State and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In this group, CSU average salaries lag behind the peer group’s average by 26 percent.

Average presidential pay for the third tier, including Cal Poly Pomona, CSU East Bay, CSU Los Angeles and five other campuses, lags behind the peer average by 19 percent.

The fourth tier of the eight smallest CSU campuses, such as Sonoma State, CSU Stanislaus and Humboldt State, was the only group in which the CSU average presidential salary exceeded the group’s average, by 3 percent.

By contrast, the old list lumped the entire set of 23 CSU campuses into one group and compared them all to a list of 20 universities. That helps explain why the smaller universities' presidential pay outpaced their peers on the new list, Reed said.

"What has happened over time in the CSU is our compensation policy has compressed at the top and pulled up from the bottom," he said. "By having an average, over time, it has maybe benefitted the smaller institutions."

The old peer group, created by the soon-to-be-defunct California Postsecondary Education Commission, had not been updated since the 1980s and included colleges many people inside and outside of CSU believed were not comparable, such as Rutgers and Tufts universities.

According to a March 2011 study [PDF] by Mercer, the average presidential pay for the peer group was $425,945 – about 30 percent to 60 percent higher than CSU presidential salaries at the time.

The committee plans to get feedback on the new lists from lawmakers and the governor’s office, with the goal of getting the document to the full CSU Board of Trustees for consideration in December.

Proposed peer comparison listing:

Group Campuses CSU Group average base bay Benchmark Group average base pay % Difference
High Enrollment & High Research San Diego $400,000 $458,360 15%
High Enrollment & Mid-Research Fullerton $309,500 $391,000 26%
Long Beach
San Francisco
San Jose
Mid-Enrollment & Mid-Research Fresno $305,100 $362,000 19%
Los Angeles
San Luis Obispo
San Bernardino
East Bay
Dominguez Hills
Lower Enrollment & Research San Marcos $277,000 $268,000 -3%
Monterey Bay
Channel Islands
Maritime Academy
Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report


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