“The joke is we would like to swap students with Arizona,” says Jim Gerber, a professor of economics at San Diego State University. “All our students will go to Arizona and pay out-of-state tuition, and all their students will come here and pay out-of-state.”
Gerber’s dig at the SDSU administration is part of a wider critique of the direction the university has been taking. That direction may be summed up in a statement the school’s president, Elliot Hirshman, made to the U-T San Diego last August. “I think it is clear,” Hirshman said, “we are on a trajectory that has been set for the last quarter-century to continue our development as a leading public research university.”
Grumbling about how loud that drumbeat has become is alive and well among faculty on campus to a significant, yet unknown, extent. “There’s never been a poll of the faculty on the issue that I know of,” Gerber says.
In December 2011, Gerber and SDSU colleague Doreen Mattingly, of the women’s studies department, chanced separately to hear a National Public Radio interview with Benjamin Ginsberg, author of a recent book called The Fall of the Faculty. Afterward, Mattingly contacted Ginsberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches political science, and invited him to San Diego. Ginsberg visited SDSU several months later and met with a group of faculty. He also gave a lecture based on the book. The lecture, by all accounts, was sparsely attended. It did generate a small coterie of professors who were taken by Ginsberg’s critique of contemporary higher education. To give an idea of their interest in Ginsberg’s book, consider its subtitle: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters.
In the book, Ginsberg writes: “From the faculty’s perspective, teaching and research are the main purposes of the university. The institution exists to promote these ends. From the perspective of many university administrators, however, teaching and research are merely instrumental endeavors. They are undertaken in order to draw customers (aka students) and research funds to the university.” All the while, Ginsberg writes, the ranks of administrators grow disproportionately to faculty, administrative pay goes up and up, and, to pay for the vast bureaucracy, university presidents engage in extensive “image polishing” and fundraising.
I have come to Jim Gerber’s office on the fourth floor of the Adams Humanities building, near the south edge of campus, to inquire how far the Ginsberg critique applies at SDSU. Outside Gerber’s window can be glimpsed a corner of beams and girders; these support the new Aztec Student Center, now under construction.
SDSU’s unique characteristics make for a loose fit with The Fall of the Faculty. Most of the universities Ginsberg studied are on the East Coast or in the Midwest. He told me by email that he did not study the California State University system.
Starting in 1960, with its “Master Plan for Higher Education,” the California legislature has viewed the state university system as sandwiched between the community colleges and the University of California. Community colleges would offer the first two years of college education and focus largely on vocational education. University of California would pursue research, which the legislature would support both financially and in the administrative structure set up for the system’s various universities. The California State Universities were charged with being teaching institutions par excellence; they would produce the bulk of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and provide teacher and professional education. Faculty would contribute research and scholarship commensurate with its teaching role. Later, the CSU was allowed to offer PhD degrees in a variety of subjects, but only as joint programs with partner universities, often one of the UCs, but sometimes a private school.
Much of the critique of higher education that Ginsberg delivers in The Fall of the Faculty is that universities today behave more like private businesses. New for-profit colleges have taken this shift to its logical conclusion. Traditional schools, both public and private, don’t have outside investors who seek a return on investment. Instead, they have excessive numbers of administrators inside the institution who command increasingly higher pay and benefits.
SDSU president Hirshman told his university senate in December that efficiency was something the school “already was achieving.” But the school’s financial initiatives go beyond that. Currently, they include a major fundraising effort called “Campaign for SDSU.” As of this writing, the campaign has raised $380 million. Other “revenue streams” come from auxiliary organizations, such as the university’s Research Foundation, and from Aztec Shops, which runs the campus bookstore and food services.
Then there is that out-of-state tuition. A university budget presentation from April 2012 projected an increase in nonresident tuition from $12,947,055 in 2007/08 to $15,009,200 in 2012/13, for an increase of $2,062,145.
It’s hard to blame public universities for pursuing entrepreneurial strategies when they face shrinking support from state legislatures. That is certainly the case at SDSU, which has lost $118 million in support from the California legislature since 2008.
But one wonders whether SDSU has done enough to cut into what Ginsberg calls “administrative blight.” Recently, governor Jerry Brown demanded that both the CSU and UC systems cut down on administrative costs. According to the Los Angeles Times in January, the governor cited a “study by a faculty group” indicating that in the two systems, “senior administrators had increased by 125 percent since 1997, while the number of students increased 33 percent.” The Sacramento Bee’s 2011 list of the salaries of California state employees brings the point closer to home. At SDSU, 35 administrators earned over $150,000 per year, and 11 earned over $200,000. Today, there are 263 administrators in all.
According to a series of budget and enrollment fact sheets, the university lost only 97 staff (that figure includes administrators) from 2004/05 to the present, while the loss of faculty (including adjuncts) in the same time period was 465. Today, full-time faculty number about 700.
Gerber is critical of the business model of running the university. “There’s this notion we get from administration all the time, how we need to be more efficient — we get it from the public, too — that we need to operate more according to business principles. Not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about waste, but we don’t have a clear bottom line in the same way that a business does.”