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More than $1 million spent on home renovations for CSU presidents

With classes being cut and costs rising, public and private money spent on renovations for the residences of incoming CSU presidents elicits dismay.

June 06, 2012|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • The Tuba Street residence of Cal State Northridge's president recently received $115,000 in renovations. The money didn't come from taxpayer funds, but the timing -- as classes are cut and student costs rise -- is being questioned.
The Tuba Street residence of Cal State Northridge's president recently… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

More than $1 million in public and private funds have been spent over the last year or so to renovate university residences of several new California State University presidents, improvements officials say are necessary as the pressure on campus leaders to raise funds becomes more acute.

Repairs to many of the homes had been delayed for years and the transition to new campus leaders provided a natural window to conduct the remodels, Cal State officials said.

The $1 million is a small sum in a university system with about 420,000 students and more than $2 billion in state funding. But at a time of major cutbacks and spiraling fee increases, the money has become a potent symbol and a political issue on some campuses.

News of the renovations has also spotlighted the increasing demand on campus presidents to solicit outside funds, as state support for public higher education has declined. The university-owned homes, occupied by 11 of the 23 campus presidents, as well as Chancellor Charles B. Reed, serve as event centers for fundraisers and other occasions that annually involve hundreds, even thousands, of guests.

Twelve other campus presidents live in their own homes but receive annual housing allowances of $50,000 or $60,000.

Chief executives are expected to raise the equivalent of 10% of the campus general fund budget and are evaluated on meeting those goals — much like private college presidents.

"We do need to be cautious with the dollars we have available, but with that said, we do need to be able to run our business," said Cal State spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp. "We need the presidents to have the best array of tools possible to perform their jobs."

University-owned homes recently upgraded include Cal State Fullerton's 7,000-square-foot El Dorado Ranch built in 1919; San Diego State's 5,200-square-foot University House; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's 5,000-square-foot University House, built in 1928 and used as an event center from 2004 until last year when it was remodeled for use as a residence again; and Cal State Northridge's 3,400-square-foot home of the president, whose campus office also received an upgrade.

But critics, inside and outside the Cal State system, are criticizing the renovations as out of step when the system has been battered by budget cuts, including $750 million this fiscal year, with another potential $250 million cut next year if a tax initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown falls short of voter approval in November.

Tuition has increased for several years running; classes have been cut, delaying students' graduations; and the system is wait-listing all applicants for the fall 2013 term.

The California Faculty Assn. calculated that money spent on renovations could pay for 153 one-year scholarships for students or 183 additional classes, among other uses. The system should consider selling the homes and using other campus facilities to host fundraising events, said Kim Geron, vice president of the faculty group.

"It feeds the notion that campus presidents and higher-ups are always going to get what they need," said Geron, a professor of political science at Cal State East Bay. "If you have to make a choice, don't remodel the kitchen, and use that money for students until we figure something else out."

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), meanwhile, said he is working to add language to the budget bill that would prohibit the use of education funds for renovations, housing allowances, travel and other executive perks, as well as address executive pay increases. Foundations could use the funds spent on home improvements for more academic pursuits and student services, he added.

"They are absolutely, totally clueless about what is going on in the state," Yee said.

Cal State trustees have come under scrutiny for offering pay increases to incoming campus presidents while increasing tuition. That furor led the system to develop a new policy that freezes state-funded salaries for two years, but allows individual campus fundraising organizations to supplement pay up to 10%.

Officials say the salary increases are necessary to attract top talent who are expected to have as much business acumen as academic experience.

After less than a year in his post, for example, San Diego State President Elliot Hirshman is raising more than $1 million each week, as part of a $500-million campus fundraising campaign to which he donated $100,000 of his own money, Uhlenkamp said. There was a public outcry when the Board of Trustees awarded Hirshman a $400,000 salary — $350,000 in state funds and $50,000 from the campus fundraising arm — during the same meeting last July at which tuition was raised by 12%. The salary was $100,000 more than his predecessor.

Some university critics, and those inside the system, say the increasing emphasis on fundraising brings up several thorny issues and threatens to privatize public education.

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