Did you hear the one about the university that gave its president a 33-percent, $100,000 raise just minutes before increasing student tuition by 12 percent?
Unfortunately, it's no joke.
On July 12, the California State University Board of Trustees voted to pay new SDSU President Elliot Hirshman $400,000, a colossal hike over the $300,000 that former President Stephen Weber was making, and then they jacked up student tuition to help cope with a $650 million decrease in state funding.
SDSU students aren't exactly known statewide for their passionate activism, but we hope the trustees' appalling decision wakes them up and prompts angry demonstrations as soon as the fall semester begins.
Trustees say they had to do it because CSU presidential pay isn't keeping pace with similar institutions across the country. It's the old “We have to pay exorbitantly to attract top talent” refrain.
What a load of crap.
That argument may hold water in good economic times, but these are obviously not good economic times. The U.S. unemployment rate is 9.2 percent. California's rate is 11.7 percent. The rate for those who are unemployed, underemployed and have given up looking for a job is 16.2 percent, more than twice the 2001 rate. California has faced deficits of $42 billion, $19 billion and $26 billion during the last three budget cycles, resulting in massive cuts to education and services for the poor.
The trustees—mostly executives themselves—have proven to be dreadfully out of touch with the struggles of regular people. They take care of their own and demonstrate little concern for students for whom a few hundred dollars more in expenses for a semester is a huge hardship.
What we don't know is whether Hirshman would have accepted less. Maybe he drove a hard bargain. If so, trustees, mindful of the economic realities, should have thanked him for his interest and moved on down the list in search of someone who wouldn't demand a 33-percent increase, in addition to free housing and a $1,000 monthly car allowance. Don't tell us that a high-quality candidate couldn't be had for $300,000 plus housing and transportation. We're not buying it. We suspect it's more about appearances for the university system—they don't want to be known as the system that pays on the low end.
For Hirshman, this is a dubious beginning. When asked by reporters about his salary, he has hemmed, hawed, deflected and rationalized. He told KPBS news late last week that “this was a fairly complicated situation” because the offer was made before the massive budget cuts came down. Hirshman is insulting our intelligence. There's nothing complicated about it. CSU officials have known since January that devastating cuts were on the way, and, as we've mentioned, the state's been in budget-cut mode for years before that. Tuition was raised 10 percent last year.
The new SDSU president signed his lavish contract, making him the highest-paid CSU president, knowing full well that the state, the CSU system and the students are hemorrhaging. He begins his tenure as a have-more while everyone else has less.
Well, not everyone. During the recent recession, income for the country's top earners increased while the rest of us struggled. SDSU is now part of that trend.
Kudos to Trustees Gavin Newsom, Steve Glaser (an advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown, who urged trustees to vote no), Margaret Fortune and Melinda Guzman for voting against this offensive compensation package; shame on the rest of them.
Hirshman's appalling contract has renewed calls for legislation banning large executive salary increases at state universities during bad budget years. While we're not always for laws that tie hands when it comes to budgeting, this obscene incident gives us good reason to support that kind of taxpayer protection, especially when there's nothing the governor or the Legislature can do to stop this sort of abuse.
As for Hirshman, there's nothing stopping him from reflecting on the furor and deciding to donate some of that money to a worthy campus cause as a gesture to those students who are struggling mightily—and paying more—to get an education at Hirshman's university.
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