SDSU is one of the largest universities in California, and is competing academically on a level more comparable to the UC schools than the CSU system, despite the numerous obstacles thrown in its way. So why is SDSU still treated by the state government as a lesser institution? And why should the university president be any less valued than some of his UC counterparts given the growing reputation and increased stature of SDSU?
There was a story in the LA Times the other day about how California Governor Jerry Brown’s appointment of Herbert L. Carter to the CSU Board of Trustees was rejected by California Senate Republicans, largely because he voted in favor of paying newly hired San Diego State University president Elliot Hirshman a $400,000 annual salary.
The uproar over Hirshman’s proposed salary began back in July, 2011, when legislators of both parties expressed outrage over the more than $100,000 raise Hirshman was set to receive over the $297,424 2010 salary of his predecessor, Dr. Stephen Weber, who retired at the conclusion of the 2011 academic year after 15 years at the helm on Montezuma Mesa. This came at the very same time (same meeting, in fact) that the CSU Trustees voted to raise student fees in light of the state’s demolition derby routine on the California education system.
There are a few things that you should know about the job that Dr. Hirshman stepped into: First, SDSU is a campus of over 31,000 students—making it the third largest campus enrollment wise in the CSU system and the fifth largest in California. It offers 85 different Bachelor’s degrees, 76 Master’s degrees, and 19 Doctorate degrees. San Diego State is one of the most applied to schools in the entire country, having received over 69,000 applications for the Fall 2012 semester. The Carnegie Foundation has categorized SDSU as a High Research Activity University, the only California State University campus to earn such a distinction more commonly associated with the University of California system schools. And under the leadership of Dr. Weber, SDSU broke into the US News rankings, coming in at #164 as a nationally ranked university.
Unlike the University of California system that counts eight different campuses in the national rankings, SDSU is the lone CSU campus to rate as a national university.
According to the California State University system, SDSU generates an annual economic impact on the San Diego region of $896 million and $1.2 billion statewide. That’s not exactly chump change. And as the SDSU campus continues to grow the impact will only become greater. SDSU is an impacted campus that unlike in decades past can be much more selective about who gets admitted to the school. Only about 30% of applicants get accepted, and the average high school GPA of those first time applicants just coming out of high school is 3.62.
Dr. Hirshman isn’t exactly taking charge of a small, middling university. There’s a helluva lot going on up on The Mesa. The school made incredible strides in its academic standing and achievement under Weber, and Hirshman is expected to take up where Weber left off and continue that climb up the national rankings. Not only that, he’s expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to the university to help fill the gap left by the state’s budget cuts, and to do so without harming the university’s ability to continue its academic ascension, all the while overseeing the growth of a major Division 1 athletics program that is achieving national recognition in its own right (and bringing notoriety and much needed dollars to the university).
Given the massive shoes that Hirshman was brought in to fill, it would appear logical that the CSU Regents would find it necessary to pay a salary commensurate with the immense responsibilities that come with running a campus like San Diego State University. After all, this is no longer your average university—it’s the crown jewel of the entire CSU system. And as an Aztec myself, I’m damn proud of that fact and of what this university has accomplished over the last 15 years, even if it means that had the admission standards been as tough when I applied as a high school senior as they are now, I probably would not have been accepted. I can live with that.
Given that SDSU is climbing up the charts and is now becoming more comparable to the UC schools than to its CSU brethren, it’s only fair to compare what some of the UC Chancellors make, as they have similar responsibilities to what Hirshman is assuming. According to a search tool of state workers’ salaries operated by the Sacramento Bee, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in 2010 earned a salary of $416,596 (2011 figures were apparently not available). UCLA Chancellor Gene Block earned $397,183 in 2010. UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox earned $387,887. UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi earned $382,249.
Compare that to the whopping $1,323,911 paid to Ohio State University’s E. Gordon Gee, or the $579,150 paid to Ball St. University’s Jo Ann Gora (yes, Ball St.). Also consider that a study found that the CSU campus presidents were seriously underpaid when compared to their peers (as you can see from the link just above), and it’s pretty clear that the $400,000 SDSU is paying Elliot Hirshman is pretty fair given the university he’s being given command of.
Fifteen years ago Stephen Weber saw the potential of SDSU and the opportunities offered by calling the San Diego region home. Under his leadership SDSU has become a nationally recognized and respected research institution. Under his leadership SDSU has narrowed the academic gap separating it from the UC schools. Entrance requirements at San Diego State have never been more stringent, and academic achievement at the school has never been higher. Elliot Hirshman is being asked to build upon that vision fostered by Dr. Weber.
In order to attract the best people, you have to pay them accordingly. If SDSU is going to continue to grow and compete with the UC campuses, then it must have somebody the quality of Stephen Weber at the helm (who was grossly underpaid, by the way). Instead, state legislators would seek to limit the university’s ability to attract the best and the brightest leaders who can guide SDSU to even greater heights. Or is preventing SDSU from being able to compete on the level of the UC schools the point?
San Diego is big enough for two world class universities. There is no reason that SDSU shouldn’t be able to provide an education on par with what UCSD offers; a quality education that all of San Diego can be proud of. Yet standing in the university’s way are arcane rules governing the CSU system that gives preferential and deferential treatment to the UC system.
The greater the standing SDSU has nationally, the greater the impact the university will have on the region, and the more money that will be brought into the university’s coffers. In order for SDSU to continue to become an academic powerhouse, it needs top notch leadership. And in order to attract that quality of leader, the school must be allowed to offer a competitive compensation package. After all, you get what you pay for. And at $400,000, the CSU system is paying SDSU’s president a salary that falls right in the middle of what leaders of comparable universities are earning. My guess is he will earn every penny of it.