CSU tweaks list for presidential salary comparisons

January 17, 2012 12:56:21 PM PST
Responding to criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office and others, California State University officials have revised a proposed list of peer universities they plan to use to help set pay for campus executives.

The new list, provided to California Watch on Thursday, no longer considers Temple University in Pennsylvania a peer of San Diego State University because Temple has a medical school -- a feature that tends to drive up the cost and complexity of university operations. Temple paid its president $536,000 in base pay in 2009-10.

Aside from that, the list remains mostly the same. The end result: After removing Temple and fixing errors, the list still draws the same conclusion -- that CSU executives are, for the most part, paid about the same or less than their peers.

The CSU Board of Trustees' Special Committee on Presidential Selection and Compensation will review the list at a Jan. 24-25 meeting, where the document is expected to be forwarded to the full board for a vote.

The new CSU list corrects several inaccuracies in salary stats. Earlier drafts of CSU's lists had overstated many of the base pay figures for executives at other universities.

Under the new list, the average pay for SDSU's selected peers dropped more than $50,000, to $406,782. That's still a little higher than SDSU President Elliot Hirshman's salary -- $400,000, including $50,000 from the university foundation. Hirshman's salary drew intense controversy because trustees voted to pay him $100,000 more than his predecessor on the same day as a tuition increase.

At a time when the state's public university systems have been increasing student tuition at dramatic rates, executive pay has come under greater scrutiny.

Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, on Friday introduced a bill that would prohibit pay raises for top university administrators during bad budget years or when student fees are increased. Yee introduced a similar bill last year; it died in the Senate Rules Committee.

A report [PDF] by the Legislative Analyst's Office released this month that called for greater oversight of California's public higher education systems also pointed out that CSU's process for developing new comparison groups involved no direct legislative or administration participation, unlike in prior years.

While CSU officials solicited feedback on their list, they developed it on their own. That deviates from the past, when the list was a product of consensus among the Department of Finance, California Postsecondary Education Commission, Legislative Analyst's Office and university systems, said Steve Boilard, managing principal analyst of education for the Legislative Analyst's Office.

The revised list does not address the legislative analyst's concern about CSU's focus on the size of other universities' research budgets. A letter [PDF] from the legislative analyst to the committee chairman also noted that some CSU campuses were grouped with institutions with much higher research budgets, a move that appeared to "unduly raise" the average executive salaries, the letter said.

CSU officials have said [PDF] they "highly weighted" other universities' research funding, enrollment and total budget when picking comparison universities, while low-income student population and six-year graduation rate were less highly weighted.

Judy Heiman, an education expert at the Legislative Analyst's Office, questioned that approach.

"If they're going to be comparing themselves with very high research universities that have that as their primary mission and try to become more like those, it would tend to blur the distinction between CSU and UC," she said. "The primary mission of CSU is instruction."

Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association -- which represents 23,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches in CSU -- said it doesn't surprise her that CSU's internally developed list of peer institutions concludes that some executives are underpaid.

"What we've always felt is that the things that they select often appear arbitrary," Taiz said, "or they do certainly appear to be designed to give them the results they seem to be seeking."

Lou Monville, chairman of the trustees' special committee on executive pay, said that research -- particularly applied research -- is an essential part of the undergraduate education mission.

"You can't take research out of context of the budget," Monville said. "When you add that to the budget, the more complicated the institution is to manage, (and) the more expertise you need. Frankly, that outside funding is becoming so important."

Which institutions end up on a university's list of peers can vary depending on which factors are weighed and how heavily. Although CSU has not disclosed its exact methodology, a look at a different model shows how the results can vary.

Under a peer grouping algorithm used by Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting academic achievement, the average base pay at SDSU's peer universities is about $11,000 lower than the average of the CSU-generated group, according to a California Watch analysis (see below).

Education Trust uses the tool to compare graduation rates at different universities, so the group weighted factors that were more closely related to student outcomes. While the nonprofit's College Results tool is geared toward a different purpose than CSU's list, the difference raises questions about what should be weighted most heavily.

"Ideally, we should be capturing things that we care about CSU performing on," said Boilard, of the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)