As He Prepares to Retire, California State's Leader Stands Up for His Decisions

Reed Saxon, AP Images

Charles B. Reed (left, at a meeting of the system's trustees this year) announced his plans to retire on Thursday. He has been chancellor of California State U. since 1998, overseeing a period of rapid growth and severe budget cuts.
May 28, 2012

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, is retiring, but he's not backing down to his critics. "In this business, in California, you've got to be a warrior," he said.

On Thursday, Mr. Reed, who is 70, announced that he will step down once his replacement is found. He has led the 23-campus system for 14 years.

"A lot of the folks out here try to make things as personal as possible," Mr. Reed said, referring to the personal and political attacks that have been lobbed at him in recent months over tuition hikes, enrollment caps, and rising pay for system presidents. The chancellor, who previously led the State University System of Florida for 13 years, says he is confident in his decision making and doesn't worry too much about what his detractors say. "I've got a thick skin," he said. "Once the decision becomes clear, I let things go forward."

"I know what I'm doing. None of these other critics has ever led a system," Mr. Reed said.

Mr. Reed's sometimes-pugnacious attitude may have been what preserved him during his tenure, notable for its duration at a time the state was plagued with frequent political and fiscal upheaval.

As chancellor in California, Mr. Reed has had to contend with two national recessions and the whipsaw of California politics under five different governors.

The first of those recessions, in the early 2000s, contributed to a historic recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, whom voters replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

The more-recent recession has been the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. California has had one of the highest rates of home foreclosures in the country and the state's revenue shortfall has been in the billions of dollars during the past four years. The size of the revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year is now estimated at $15-billion.

Mr. Reed said he is not leaving because of the difficult fiscal situation, but it has changed the way he has to do his job. "I spend a huge amount of time worrying ... about how we are going to get through with the least amount of disruption to employees and students," he said.

During the past four years, the California State system has had its state appropriation cut by about 35 percent, more than a billion dollars. To compensate, the system has raised tuition by double-digit percentages for several years and has capped enrollment, which had grown by more than 30 percent during Mr. Reed's tenure.

Diversity Efforts

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Reed's leadership is his outspoken advocacy for the public mission of higher education in California and nationally, said F. King Alexander, president of the system's Long Beach campus.

The chancellor and other system leaders have led broad outreach programs for minority students, speaking to black congregations in California's churches; distributing more than three million "How to Get to College" posters, produced in eight languages; and helping to create a program that gives California 11th-graders feedback on standardized tests about their readiness for college-level English and math.

On the national level, Mr. Reed has pushed, so far unsuccessfully, for federal need-based aid to go directly to public colleges based on the number of low-income students they enroll. And the chancellor was a leader in supporting a provision in the last federal Higher Education Act that requires states to provide more consistent state support for public higher education or risk losing money to help low-income students attend college, Mr. Alexander said. That provision made it through, despite widespread opposition from governors and state legislators.

But the leader of the system's main faculty union is not cutting Mr. Reed any slack. Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, said the chancellor was too conciliatory with state lawmakers instead of demanding, as the union did, that budget cuts be made elsewhere.

"It's very disconcerting to put yourself out there fighting ... to minimize the impact on the institution and not have your leader making the same argument," Ms. Taiz said.

And the union president says Mr. Reed has protected the pay of campus presidents while faculty pay has been stagnant and tuition for students has been steadily rising.

"If you are asking everyone to make difficult sacrifices, you cannot, in the middle of that, start throwing money to your executives," she said.

The chancellor has spent too much time interacting with the campus executives and too little time listening to faculty and students, she said.

Mr. Reed says the anger over tuition hikes should be directed at state lawmakers rather than at him. "I know the system needs revenue, and if the state takes it away, what are the alternatives? Get rid of students? Lay off faculty? The same people who criticize me are the beneficiaries" of those tuition increases, he said.

And compensation for campus presidents has to remain competitive so the system can recruit leadership nationally, he said. "We're in the lower 50 percent of compensation in the U.S., so we don't overpay. It's one of those easy targets," he said.

Mr. Reed said that after he retires, he and his wife will move back to Florida, and he plans to spend more time with his five grandchildren, who live in Atlanta.

Until then he is working to finalize the budget for the next fiscal year. And even with all the current problems, Mr. Reed said he is still optimistic that California will eventually right itself.

"I think people in California will wake up some morning and say, 'Hell, no, we need to find a way to pay for these things.' They'll rearrange some priorities, quit funding the prison system at the level they do here, and make some significant changes."

Correction (May 29, 2012, 10:30 a.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly named the higher-education system that Charles Reed had previously led. It was the State University System of Florida, not the Florida State University system. The text has been corrected.