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Cal State leaders’ pay grows at twice the rate as pay for teachers

A student walks on San Francisco State University's quad.
Students make their way around the San Francisco State University campus. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

In her first year as chancellor of the California State University system, Mildred García will earn just under $1 million in total compensation to lead the nation’s largest system of higher education.

That’s more than triple Gov. Gavin Newsom’s compensation. It’s also a steep increase from the three previous chancellors who led the 23-campus system.

According to an analysis by CalMatters using publicly available salary data, system leaders and presidents in the Cal State system have seen their pay increase at a higher rate than full-time professors and lecturers over the past 15 years.

RELATED: California Wage Report: Who Made the Most at State Colleges, Courts?

While the Cal State system aims for executive salaries to be at the median of comparable institutions nationwide, trends pushing that median upward have resulted in larger salaries for the system’s chancellor and campus presidents.

Cal State is facing backlash for approving student tuition increases this year and simultaneously raising executive pay during a $1.5 billion budget deficit. Meanwhile, the California Faculty Association is preparing to strike for increased pay. The faculty union has four strikes planned for early December at Cal Poly Pomona, San Francisco State, Cal State Los Angeles and Sacramento State.

García inherits a system with a long list of priorities—chief among them, negotiating raises for the 29,000 instructors the faculty union represents. The union said on Oct. 31 that 95% of its members who voted approved of strike plans amid negotiations to lift the minimum wages for the lowest-paid instructors and increase salaries generally, among other demands.

CalMatters reached out for an interview with García, but she declined through Cal State spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith.

At the Cal State Board of Trustees meeting in July, faculty and union members criticized executive salary increases at the university system. At that meeting, the board voted in favor of the chancellor’s compensation package and discussed a proposal to increase student tuition.

“The CSU should use the budget it receives from the state for direct instruction and student advancement,” said Charles Toombs, faculty union president and Africana studies professor at San Diego State, “not for continued expansion of administrative bloat and endless administrative positions at the Chancellor’s Office and on all 23 campuses.”

Additionally, student leader Dominic Treseler said at the July meeting a tuition hike beginning in Fall 2024 would adversely affect students.

“Students should not bear the inequitable burden of addressing revenue shortfalls for the system,” said Treseler, president of the Cal State Student Association and a senior studying political science at San Jose State. Nevertheless, the board voted in September to increase tuition by 34% over five years.

Rate of Salary Increases for Instructors Lag Behind Executives’ 

Cal State presidents have seen their base salaries grow by an average of 43% between 2007 and 2022, translating to an average $119,882 salary increase per campus president over that time. 

In 2022, all 23 presidents received a 7% raise. Additionally, 14 of the presidents who underwent three-year reviews received additional equity increases between 6.7% and 20%.

“Even after making the general salary increases and other market adjustments, 17 campus presidents remain below their peer group median salary,” Bentley-Smith wrote in an email statement.

The Cal State chancellor has seen significant salary increases over the same 15-year period—increasing 38% from a $451,500 base salary for former chancellor Charles Reed in 2007 to a $625,000 base salary for interim chancellor Jolene Koester in 2022. 

The Cal State Board of Trustees allotted an additional 27% salary bump in July 2023 when it approved a $795,000 base salary for García. Additionally, $80,000 in deferred compensation, a $96,000 annual housing allowance and a $1,000 monthly auto stipend brought her total compensation package to just under $1 million a year.

In comparison, instructor salaries have been slower to grow. On average, lecturer salaries at Cal State increased by 22% within the past 15 years, translating to a $13,000 pay bump for the system’s 3,000 full-time lecturers. In Fall 2022, full-time lecturers earned an average of $71,255.  

Meanwhile, professor pay has risen at a rate of 30% since 2007, going from an average of $93,643 to $122,016 in Fall 2022. Full professors, the top rank on the tenure track, are the highest-paid faculty, while lecturers are the lowest. 

Even for students, the pay disparity between on-the-ground faculty is concerning. 

“It’s kind of crazy to expect our faculty members to be able to perform so well at such a low compensation rate,” Treseler said.

Claire Garrido-Ortega, co-president of the faculty union at Cal State Long Beach and health science lecturer, said in her 18 years of teaching in higher education, she has only received one pay increase as a result of union bargaining in 2020.

“Yeah, I can’t even describe how bad it feels,” she said. “But it feels horrible. But here I am.”

Cal State isn’t the only system in the state rewarding executives with raises. Within the past decade, University of California chancellors, equivalent to CSU presidents, had an average salary increase of 73%, or $233,738, between 2012 and 2022. 

In July 2020, UC Regents approved an $890,000 base salary for UC President Michael Drake, the system leader, a steep increase from his predecessor Janet Napolitano, who earned a base salary of $570,000 in 2019. 

Salaries for Executives Are Increasing Nationwide  

In spite of outcry from faculty and students over recent decisions from the board of trustees, pay for university executives has consistently increased across the country.

From 2010 to 2019, compensation for college presidents across 49 states, excluding Hawaii, increased 56%, according to an analysis published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The average salary for a college president rose from $543,000 in 2010, to $715,000 in 2019, an increase 32% above the rate of inflation, according to the article’s authors Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein, professors at George Mason University in Virginia. 

Part of what is driving salaries upward is the trend of campuses looking for candidates with corporate leadership experience, Wilde said. 

“People in those kinds of positions are used to seeing higher salaries,” Wilde said. “They see that most large universities have overall budgets of many millions, if not into the billions, of dollars.” 

Despite the nationwide upward trend, the reality is that California institutions are still on the lower end of the base salary nationally, according to Wilde, particularly in the Cal State system. She added that California generally has a higher cost of living than other states, yet salaries do not reflect that fact when compared to administrators at other state institutions.

“The most ridiculous set of contracts we see are out of Florida. California is not anywhere near up to that,” Wilde said. “They’re low, particularly if you are thinking about the Cal State system, which has lower pay than the UC system.”

Presidential pay at Cal State is determined by the median salary of comparable institutions nationally, in addition to the candidate’s reputation, breadth of experience and other accomplishments, according to CSU compensation policy.

“We are a state institution at the end of the day, and we have to be fiscally prudent with our resources,” Cal State’s Bentley-Smith said. “So we need to attract and retain the brightest and most talented in order to serve our mission and so we need to pay accordingly to attract those people.”

Bentley-Smith declined to answer whether executive salaries could be capped in the future, stating any policy change on executive pay would need to be initiated by the board of trustees.

For Cal State presidents, each campus is grouped with comparable universities across the nation to assess the median salary. The median salaries of the comparison groups sit at $498,269 on the high end and $370,234 on the low end.

In comparison, the average base salary for presidents in Texas public universities was $670,000 in 2022. Additionally, three of the nation’s highest-paid presidents that year were in Texas. The University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston all paid their presidents over $1 million in base salary, also well above the $608,426 average of presidents in the UC system in 2022. 

At Cal State, presidents meet with the chancellor during the first year of appointment to discuss campus-specific goals and set starting compensation. For new presidents, base salary is not permitted to exceed their predecessor’s by more than 10% unless “extraordinary circumstances” arise—including the president’s recognized ability. 

A year later, they reconvene to discuss progress, after which reviews are conducted every three years, according to Cal State policy. Presidential reviews entail feedback from student and campus leadership as well as alumni.

Along with increases in salary, presidents are often granted additional compensation and perks during contract negotiations that can dramatically increase their full compensation. Presidents can consult with personal lawyers for added benefits such as exit agreements, allowing presidents to remain at their respective schools in the form of a teaching position, in some cases, even if removed for a specific reason. 

Former Cal State chancellor Joseph Castro resigned as the system’s leader in February 2022 after allegations he mishandled sexual harassment complaints. Castro then exercised his “retreat rights” to become a faculty member at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he started teaching in spring 2023. 

Wilde said there are typically no metrics to determine if a president is reaching the goals of the university. Executive contracts involving performance bonuses or incentives list things generally, such as increasing enrollment, without specific benchmarks. Wilde expects executive pay to continue the upward trends seen nationally.

Finklestein added that a president’s goals are often considered a private matter among the board and not made public. He said this further perpetuates the treatment of campus presidents as corporate executives rather than a leader of an educational institution.

Lynn Mahoney stands outside with a woman in the foreground.
San Francisco State University president Lynn Mahoney chats with students at an information table on the San Francisco State University campus in 2019. | Source: Liz Hafalia/SFChronicle/Getty Images

The Role of the Campus President

San Francisco State University’s president, Lynn Mahoney, joined the campus in May 2019. Mahoney, who earns a base salary of $463,585, says her salary is at the median of comparable institutions.

Mahoney said her job includes four main roles: hiring and mentoring the campus leadership, promoting the university’s mission to external stakeholders, providing basic needs for students and guiding the campus as a moral and political leader.

“So my typical day is meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting,” Mahoney said.

She says over the past five years, increasing demands of presidents have made the job more difficult. Mahoney said colleges increasingly provide students’ basic needs, as well as moral and political guidance for the campus community during turbulent times locally, nationally and abroad.

In addition, she said she holds a lot of responsibility in her oversight of a $300 million budget, the success of 23,000 students and the well-being of all the employees.

“The more we’re asked to do, the more society yells at us and says, ‘Oh, you’re failing at your mission,’ while you’re asking us to do a lot,” Mahoney said. “So there’s another piece now to being a university president that is so much harder, and so much more complicated than it ever was before.”

Mahoney added that while base salaries for campus executives may be high, it’s a necessary tool for the system to recruit on a national stage. According to Mahoney, in hiring for her own campus, she’s lost candidates to campuses that could offer higher salaries and in states with lower costs of living than California. She thinks Chancellor García is the type of candidate many campuses across the nation would have loved to hire. 

“If the next state over is going to pay $900,000 or more, $1.2 million, how is the CSU going to recruit the kind of quality chancellor it needs to serve the largest, most impactful state university system?” Mahoney said.

The Cal State system employs search firms to scout the most qualified candidates for a position. Mahoney said after she submitted her application for the position, she was contacted by a search firm while serving as the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, and was ultimately hired by the board of trustees for her current role. 

Finklestein said it’s common that university presidents allocate their time toward external relations, including fundraising for the university, working with state legislators and meeting with university board members. Presidents rarely get involved in issues of curriculum or make academic decisions that haven’t been heavily vetted beforehand, he said.

“I think this is something that most people don’t understand today,” Finklestein said. “A university president has actually very little to do with the day-to-day running of the university.”