Cal State Fullerton President Fram Virjee said he didn’t start working for the CSU because of the paycheck. After a 30-year career as a lawyer, he was planning to retire and move to Rwanda with his wife, Julie, for their nonprofit, then he received a call from Chancellor Timothy P. White who convinced him to take the job.
When Virjee started at the CSU as vice chancellor and general counsel in January 2014, he earned $310,000. In November 2017, he accepted the position of CSUF president just one month after former CSUF President Mildred García left CSUF mid-academic year.
As president, Virjee earns a salary of $356,431, which is on the low end of the pay scale when compared to eight universities across the United States with similar high enrollment, according to the CSU Chancellor’s Office. Among the eight peer universities, Florida International University is at the top, with its president earning $600,653 in 2016, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“There is no question that the Cal State University presidents get paid less than other public and private universities across the nation. But everybody in the CSU gets paid less than everybody in most universities,” Virjee said.
Out of the 23 CSU presidents, Virjee is the fifth highest paid, according to the chancellor’s office.
During a January 2018 CSU Board of Trustees meeting, trustee Silas Abrego pointed out an unequal pay problem among the presidents, due to current policies.
When new presidents take office at the CSU, their salaries may either match the pay of the previous president or may only exceed it by up to 10 percent.
“I think we discourage applicants from applying,” Abrego said in a April 12 interview. “For potential candidates, making the same or perhaps more money, why would you apply if you couldn’t increase your current salary?”
Abrego recommended that the chancellor hire presidents based on a pay scale that correlates to the presidents’ skills and experience, and reflects each university’s specific characteristics.
Virjee, who is receiving an identical salary to García, agrees the current salary structure could create problems for the CSU in attracting quality presidents down the line, particularly with the continually growing market.
“You don’t want people to just dismiss us out of hand. It’s almost like if you’re not willing to pay that much, then it must not be very important,” Virjee said.
The low pay of presidents in comparison to the rest of the U.S. is reflective of the CSU system’s struggle with funding resources trickling down to both faculty and staff. Abrego said funding from both the state and student tuition isn’t enough to keep CSUs competitive.
Dan Bauman, a data reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said this disparity within the CSU might be due to the way the California State Legislature handles the funding of its university presidents.
“Some states choose not to legislate who as opposed to California, who has put restrictions on presidents getting money from university foundations,” Bauman said.
The CSU used to supplement a portion of presidential salaries with foundation funds, which are donations used to boost salaries. Because presidents also sit on foundation boards, the CSU board of trustees acknowledged that it was a conflict of interest and voted to eliminate foundation funds from all presidential salaries as of January 2018.
By comparison, Bauman said Texas has an abundance of money from oil and outside donations, allowing it to fund universities without heavily imposing on taxpayers.
“We’re stuck in the middle. We get about half of our funding from tuition and about half of our funding from the state. And if the state doesn’t fund us, it is a crisis. We’re looking at freezing programs, not hiring tenured faculty. And still we won’t be able to pay our bills and CSUF is not any different than the other CSUs,” Virjee said.
He is expected to continue at CSUF until June 2019 and the national search for the next permanent president begins fall 2018.
Virjee said he wanted to become CSUF president because he wanted to make a direct impact on students at the university, which is what the CSU looks for when recruiting its leadership.
“The way for us to stay competitive is to find people who the most important thing for them is the mission of what we do, and it is important enough that the marginal additional compensation won’t make the difference,” Virjee said.