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Chancellor search brings Cal State's challenges into focus

As they start searching for a new Cal State chancellor, panel members hear suggestions and concerns about criteria, salary, term limits and other issues.

July 05, 2012|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times (kajvu4nc/600 )

Should the next chancellor of the California State University system have classroom experience? Should the successful candidate take a salary reduction given the state's precarious fiscal condition? Should the position have term limits?

Those questions and more were raised in the first meeting of a special panel of the Board of Trustees that has begun the search for the next top executive of the 23-campus system.

The current leader, Charles B. Reed, announced in May that he would retire after 14 years as head of the nation's largest public four-year university system.

The transition in leadership comes at an important time for higher education, with dwindling state funding, spiraling tuition, cutbacks in staff and course offerings, and rising enrollment demands. All these issues will be of immediate concern to the incoming chief.

With so much at stake, finding a replacement who can satisfy the disparate desires of students, faculty, state lawmakers and the public is likely to prove impossible, committee members say.

"There's no question that this is a crucial role in the scheme of things in California," trustee William Hauck, chairman of the selection committee, said in an interview. "As was the case the last time we did this, we really have got to find someone we believe is going to be capable of dealing with all of the external, environmental factors involved in the job today. Our objective is not to find someone who is going to make everyone happy. That is impossible. We want to be primarily focused on achieving the right outcome."

In fact, trustees came under criticism almost immediately for posting a job description before gathering input from students, faculty and other interested parties.

Last week, the panel heard from about 20 speakers at its Long Beach headquarters. One of the first — Patrick Choi, a member of the Academic Professionals of California, which represents campus support staff — was blunt in his assessment that a change of direction at the top was needed.

Reed, though lauded for many accomplishments, was a divisive figure for many faculty and students who accused him of favoring executive privileges over student interests.

Cal State was at the center of public outcry over executive compensation, awarding pay raises to campus presidents while increasing tuition and limiting enrollment. Reed receives an annual salary of $421,500, as well as a $30,000-a-year supplement from the university foundation.

Candidates should be asked to take a modest salary cut to bring them more in line with the pay of non-management employees, Choi said.

"We need a chancellor who can listen and learn," said Choi, a staff member in disability services at Cal State Bakersfield.

Yesenia Ramirez suggested wholesale reform of the chancellor's position by setting a term limit, such as that imposed on trustees themselves, the majority of whom are appointed by the governor for eight years.

"We've had Reed since 1998, and in that time there have been so many major changes, such as the economic environment," said Ramirez, 23, a senior at Cal State Los Angeles majoring in social work. "With term limits we can get new, fresh ideas and not be stuck with the same results."

Hector Escobar argued for someone from inside the system who is passionate about the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which coordinated community colleges and Cal State and University of California campuses into systems of affordable, accessible higher education — an ideal many believe has been compromised through waning state support.

"It's key to keeping our workforce educated and to California remaining innovative," said Escobar, 21, a criminal justice major at Cal State L.A. and president of the campus student government. "There have to be some compromises but not to the extent that we're losing the value of the master plan. I believe the next chancellor should be someone from the CSU who has the experience of being a teacher and is looking out for students' interests at all times."

Escobar's criteria were echoed by several faculty members who unfurled a 24-foot scroll with the results of a recent survey of 1,200 members of the California Faculty Assn.

High priorities included candidates with strong academic credentials and a commitment to academic freedom, shared governance and transparency.

Faculty speakers also called on the committee to make the list of finalists public and allow several Cal State campuses to host visits by those candidates in order to interact with the school communities.

"Cal State is at a pivotal moment," said Jonathan Karpf, an anthropology lecturer at San Jose State. "You have an opportunity to demonstrate … that you take seriously your responsibility to create a process that is open and transparent."

Hauck was noncommittal on publicizing the names of finalists, noting that "people's careers are at stake." But he said the eight-member committee is still finalizing how it will proceed.

Reed has said he will remain as chancellor until a replacement is found. The committee hopes to finish its job by early October, Hauck said.

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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