Credit the California State University system’s incoming chancellor with setting the right tone from the start. New Chancellor Timothy White’s request to trim his proposed pay sends a useful message for a university system facing financial challenges: University trustees, administrators and employees should all play a role in restraining the system’s costs.
Cal State trustees initially offered White the same salary as outgoing Chancellor Charles Reed — $421,500 annually, plus a yearly supplement of $30,000 from the California State University Foundation. White, now chancellor of UC Riverside, asked the board to cut his salary by 10 percent, to set an example at a time when the system has cut spending and increased student fees. White will still do well financially; his new salary will be $380,000 a year, plus the $30,000 annual supplement and a package of benefits including a $1,000 a month car allowance.
But the incoming chancellor’s pay cut shows a grasp of the fiscal and political realities facing Cal State that has often eluded university officials. The Board of Trustees last year ran into criticism after paying the new president of San Diego State $100,000 more than his predecessor. The trustees created the highest-paid campus president in the system on the same day they voted to increase student fees by 12 percent. That action created the perception that top-rank pay for administrators took precedence over the university’s other needs — a dangerous impression for a public university to leave with taxpayers.
Granted, the savings from White’s lower salary represent only a fraction of the university system’s budget, which is more than $3.9 billion this fiscal year. But the university has seen state funding shrink by $950 million since 2007-08. During that same period, basic tuition for full-time students jumped from $2,772 in 2007-08 to $5,472 this year. Nor does voters’ approval of tax hikes this month end the need for fiscal restraint. The tax vote merely avoids additional spending restraints this year, and any additional money will be only temporary.
The new chancellor’s gesture, however, signals shared sacrifice — an especially useful signal to university employees, whose cooperation will be essential in controlling the system’s costs. Cal State faculty had frequently criticized lucrative administrative pay decisions while the university was cutting programs and limiting enrollment. White’s voluntary pay reduction can help change that dynamic.
Cal State does need to offer competitive salaries to attract top talent, but trustees need to balance such decisions against the university’s fiscal realities. And measurements of "competitiveness” should be accurate. The state’s legislative analyst last year pointed out pay-inflating flaws in the system’s executive salary comparisons — flaws that trustees have never rectified.
Cal State should be focused on furthering the university’s core educational mission, not squabbling over top officials’ salaries. White seems to recognize that fact, and his salary decision helps shift the discussion back where it belongs, on cost-effective higher education.