Presidents are bowing out at some Cal State schools

  • November 6, 2011

By Carla Rivera
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

San Francisco State President Robert Corrigan decided this summer that at 76, he could not outlast a battered state economy that has forced deep cuts in programs and faculty at his and other Cal State campuses.

In August, he announced that he would step down at the end of the academic year to return to research and writing, leaving worries about the budget to his successor.

Corrigan is not alone.

Long-serving presidents of four other Cal State campuses — Northridge, Fullerton, San Bernardino and the California Maritime Academy — also are retiring this year or next. The university's leaders face the challenge of finding replacements during the state's fiscal crisis and at a time when Cal State is also under scrutiny for recent hiring and compensation decisions.

Searches are underway to find candidates for Northridge and Fullerton, with the Board of Trustees due to fill those positions by January.

The selection process for the other three positions will begin early next year, with appointments likely by early summer. The retirements follow the 2011 installations of new leaders for San Diego State, San Jose State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and an interim appointment at Cal State East Bay.

Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed, who became head of the now-23 campus system in 1998, said he could not remember a previous time when it had so many vacancies at once, and there may be additional retirements among the presidents within the year, he said.

The new leaders will face challenges that stem mainly from reduced state funding and increased enrollment demand. Cal State, which has nearly 412,000 students, is the nation's largest system of four-year universities. But this year alone, funding was cut $650 million, with $100 million more in jeopardy at mid-year if state revenues fall below projections.

"These individuals will need to be dramatic change agents," said William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. "Simply maintaining the status quo is not viable. They are going to need to be able to not only have a vision of how they want to dramatically change campuses but also have the power of persuasion to reach out to multiple constituents."

The vacancies represent an opportunity for Cal State, he said.

Reed said the selection committees will look for candidates who have experience with diverse student populations, with managing large operational budgets and fundraising abilities, among other skills.

"Fullerton and Northridge have 35,000 students, and there are not that many campuses in the [nation] that have that number," the chancellor said. "These are humongous operations. You can't go out and get somebody who's had 1,200 students in Nevada. We need people with urban, large institutional experience."

California's Master Plan for Higher Education has long been the envy of other states. Its colleges are still sought-after, despite the state's dismal economy, said Corrigan, who attended a recent meeting in Boston of university presidents and chancellors.

"There's hardly a state that's not dealing with the kinds of issues we are, although they may be more pronounced in California," the San Francisco State leader said. "We have what had been a strong economic base, a large state with a large population and very smart people. I don't think it will be a situation that prevents us from getting good candidates. What I do worry about both for administration and faculty is the tug of private enterprise."

Competition for qualified college administrators, already intense, is expected to grow, said Jamie Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search, which is affiliated with the Assn. of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The average age of college presidents increased from 52 in 1986 to nearly 61 in recent years, according to a study by the American Council on Education, and has resulted in a wave of retirements nationally.

The nation's roughly 3,400 public and private colleges are experiencing a 10% turnover in campus heads annually, Ferrare said.

Cal State leaders were criticized this summer after they decided to pay Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State, an annual salary of $400,000, $100,000 more than his predecessor. That vote followed the board's controversial decision in January to pay $380,000 to the new president of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Reed and other officials said the salaries were necessary to attract talented administrators for the jobs of running large campuses and raising millions of dollars in private funds.

Gov. Jerry Brown disagreed, and several lawmakers have proposed limiting trustees' ability to set compensation of campus presidents. In response, the Cal State board formed a committee to review compensation and selection policies.

The panel is still considering the salary issue but canceled a policy that had required finalists to make public visits to campuses, despite objections that the change would mean more anonymity for applicants. Getting rid of the requirement could thus help to attract more internal candidates, who might have been dissuaded otherwise, Reed said.

Many students and faculty argue that the campus visits are an important tool.

"Now is the not the time to speed through the process," said Aissa Canchola, 22, a student government leader at Cal State Fullerton. "The budget doesn't seem like it's going to get better, and we need to make sure we're going to get leadership the campus is going to embrace right off the bat.… Students really want a president who is going to make him- or herself visible."

Finalists for the Cal State Northridge presidency will be asked if they will consider making public visits to the campus, although refusal will not eliminate them, said faculty leader Steven Stepanek, a member of an advisory committee that will interview candidates.

Cal State San Bernardino President Albert Karnig, who is retiring next summer after 15 years as president, said California must boost funding for higher education or see its image erode.

"Since I've been president, there has been a pretty basic abandonment of public education," said Karnig, 69, who plans to conduct workshops for new campus leaders after he retires. He was previously provost at the University of Wyoming.

"I came here because I liked the concept of California," he said. "We want to make sure that concept isn't flushed away. The thing we don't want to happen is to make education part of the partisan set of issues. It ought to be bipartisan. It ought to be about students."

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