The current crisis in higher education leadership is on full display at California State University (CSU) – the nation’s largest four-year public university system. Take the case of former CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro.
Castro’s troubles began with an underling — Fresno State vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas — who was the subject of ongoing sexual harassment complaints and investigations. In 2018, Castro “enthusiastically” nominated his colleague to become the next president of CSU San Marcos. But later, as complaints about his vice president’s behavior poured in, Castro authorized a $260,000 payout and a retirement package for the troubled subordinate. The sweetheart agreement included a glowing letter of recommendation. It’s golden parachute number one.
When those actions came to light last winter, Castro was forced to end his brief reign as CSU’s executive director. Despite a rather ignominious departure, Castro received more than $400,000 “to advise” the CSU Board of Trustees for a year and, even without a glowing letter of recommendation, he retains the right to a well-paid tenured professorship. at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Say “hello” to golden parachute number two.
In what sounds like an episode of “The Real Presidents of Cal State” or a spin-off of “Game of Thrones,” over the past month, CSU wrote a $600,000 check to a former provost for Quietly settle allegations of retaliation and sexual harassment against the husband of Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki. The claim was settled just weeks before Sakaki and other CSU chairmen met with a key state lawmaker to express their qualms about Castro’s leadership of the system.
These cases are not exceptions. For top CSU administrators, golden parachutes and insider trading are the rule. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, more than $4 million in salaries and benefits have been paid out in recent years to former high-level directors. The CSU launched its “executive transition” program in 1981; it has since been expanded three times. Castro’s predecessor as CSU chancellor, Tim White, receives $327,000 a year for two years plus a $24,000 car allowance. Executives in the program are usually “transferred” into high-paying tenure-track faculty jobs. The California State Auditor noted that these arrangements lacked transparency and recommended that the CSU do a better job of oversight. A beneficiary of the program recently informed a Los Angeles Times journalist that “she was not required to document her work in the program. As students and faculty in the nation’s largest public university system grapple with a pandemic, skyrocketing costs of living, and major disruptions to teaching and learning, CSU continues to fund unpresented jobs and secret deals for its managerial elite.
In its first public meeting since the revelations about the ex-chancellor, the board of trustees came under heavy criticism from CSU students, faculty and staff. Claiming they were ‘kept in the dark’ about Castro’s issues, the board announced that the executive’s transition program would be put on hold until an internal task force reviews the program and issues its recommendations. .
We wish this scandal was all about bad actors. Instead, it’s time to recognize that all this mess – personal dealings, secrecy, mismanagement – reflects a systemic failure of higher education.
For more than three decades, the academic job market boomed only for those at the very top of the pay scale – university and college administrators. In 1993, the CSU system employed just over 2,000 administrators; by 2018, this number had increased to 4,281. In the short period between 2007 and 2015, the number of CSU managers increased by 15% while the number of professors increased by 7%. Over a five-year period (2011-2016), the CSU Chancellor’s Office budget increased by $10 million. From 2005 to 2018, the CSU president’s average salary – excluding housing and car allowances – increased by 38%. Meanwhile, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has stagnated at around 10,500 faculty. The number of underpaid temporary faculty has skyrocketed to nearly 17,000, or about two-thirds of CSU faculty.
This lopsided growth reflects a tectonic shift in California (and the United States more generally) – the ongoing privatization of public higher education as the cost of a bachelor’s degree is shifted from the state to students. In California, the story begins with Ronald Reagan, who spent most of his two terms (1967 to 1975) as governor trying to punish student and faculty activists by imposing tuition fees in largely free public colleges and universities in California. By the late 1970s, these efforts had paid off. In 1980, the State of California spent approximately $11,240 per CSU student; by 2013, that number had dropped to $6,147. (In just five years—2007 and 2012—CSU and the University of California lost $2 billion in state aid.) To make ends meet, CSU students, largely from the classroom worker, paid the bill. CSU tuition and annual fees have skyrocketed from approximately $500 in 1979 to $7,300 in 2022. In just two decades, from 1994 to 2014, in-state tuition to UHC tripled, although institutional spending barely increased. By one estimate, students paid 1,360% more in inflation-adjusted dollars to attend CSU in 2022 than they did in 1972. The current student debt crisis is a direct result of this story.
Banks and other lenders reaped the benefits of this change, while the administration of public colleges and universities responded by imitating the private sector. Presidents added “CEO” to their titles, while provosts became “chief operating officers” and budget offices were led by chief financial officers. More importantly, administrators began to take control of public higher education from faculty and students. Student enrollment in higher education in the United States increased by 78% between 1976 and 2018 and full-time faculty kept pace by increasing by 92%, but the number of administrators and executives increased 164% over the same period. Within the CSU system, the number of full-time faculty increased by a meager 3% from 1975 to 2008; over the same period, the number of directors increased by 221%. During a critical 10-year period (2004-2014) that was marked by catastrophic budget cuts, California unloaded higher education costs onto students and faculty salaries lagged behind the inflation, even as executive salaries increased by 24% and the CSU president’s salaries increased by 36%. (excluding benefits such as housing and car allowances). The moral of the story echoes one of the basic principles of neoliberalism: austerity for the most, prosperity for the few.
While some describe this management boom as “administrative bloat,” we believe it points to a deeper problem: the creation and growth of an administrative class within higher education, a group of special interest that is deeply disconnected from the vital core of the university — teaching and learning, faculty and students. Members of this administrative class move from one post and campus to another, often quite frequently. Many have brief or limited classroom experience. They usually have exclusive control of the purse strings of an institution. They also generally see the university in terms of organizational charts and “chains of command”. And, because they are accountable only to each other, they survive and thrive on patronage and clientelism.
When a subordinate said he was bullied and harassed by the Fresno State Vice President of Student Affairs, former Chancellor Castro reportedly replied, “Well, I’m in a very difficult because Frank [the vice president] babysit my son this weekend. It is difficult to find a statement that sums up better or more richly the dynamics and dysfunction of the administrative class.
Like any large organization, universities need administration. This is not the same as saying that universities need an administrative class. To avoid managerial cronyism and create a more efficient administration, universities should instead practice a more democratic and participatory model of leadership. The British, German, Japanese and many other university systems offer an alternative. In these systems, students and faculty (and sometimes staff) play a more central role in decision-making as they elect academic leaders, including chancellors, presidents, and deans. The university rector is not a professional administrator but rather a faculty member who knows the institution well throughout his career as a teacher and scholar. In many of these systems, the rector enjoys a specific mandate before returning to the faculty. Although rectors can appoint managers, their decisions are ultimately subject to the academic community they represent – not a coterie of like-minded bureaucrats.
As recent events at CSU demonstrate, higher education leadership is in crisis. The current system – with its offerings and cronyism – benefits the few at the expense of the many, including students, teachers and the public. Hiring consultants and setting up task forces will not solve this crisis. More democracy is the only path to more accountability in California’s public universities and colleges.