The chairman of California State University's governing board said Tuesday that he will propose capping the pay of new executives at 10% above what their predecessors made in the wake of stinging criticism of recent salary decisions.
Herb Carter, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the limit would address concerns raised by several state lawmakers who have introduced legislation that would establish stricter policies and curb the trustees' ability to set compensation.
Trustees gathered Tuesday in Long Beach and will continue their meeting Wednesday. They are scheduled to consider revising the formula used to set salary and benefits for new presidents in the 23-campus system.
That method would use a list of comparison colleges and universities from around the country to determine appropriate compensation. Cal State officials have long argued that they must offer competitive salaries to attract the most qualified candidates.
But legislators, as well as Gov. Jerry Brown, have criticized the approach as flawed at a time when the state's budget crisis has forced deep funding cuts at both Cal State and the University of California.
The controversy came to a head in July when trustees approved an annual salary of $400,000 — $350,000 in general funds and $50,000 from a campus foundation — for Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State, at the same meeting at which tuition was increased by 12%. The salary was $100,000 more than Hirshman's predecessor earned.
In response, the Cal State board formed a committee to review salary and selection policies. The committee is recommending that Cal State campuses be sorted into five categories, depending on location, enrollment, research funding and other criteria and that the mean salary of presidents at the comparison institutions be used to determine compensation.
The 10 comparison schools for San Diego State, for example, include George Mason University in Virginia, the University of Oregon and the University of Alabama, with an overall benchmark salary of $406,782.
Carter's proposal would set a maximum of about $325,000 for most presidents. He indicated that under his proposal future presidents of San Diego State could see a salary reduction to bring them in line with the cap.
The salary controversy had become a distraction that was hampering discussion of other important issues, Carter said in an interview.
"We have been accused of being tone deaf, and we are not," he said. "We need to get this discussion behind us, and we need to get back to the discussion of how do we retain and graduate students."
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a critic of Cal State pay decisions, said he applauded the proposed cap. Lieu is the author of SB 959, which would limit presidents' raises and give priority to candidates from within Cal State.
Last week, Lieu wrote a letter to Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed, requesting that the board reconsider the salary issue; Lieu is scheduled to testify at Wednesday's meeting.
"I believe this would be significant step for the board to take, and I urge them to approve Chairman Carter's proposal," Lieu said. "It would go a long way toward minimizing my concerns."
In November, the trustees approved an additional 9% tuition increase for fall 2012 at a raucous meeting in which police used pepper spray to clear out protesters angered over fee hikes, education cuts and executive salaries.