Gerber tells me about working as a wild-land firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service before starting his academic career. The demobilization of the Vietnam War was then underway.
“Suddenly,” he says, “a lot of surplus military helicopters were available at a low price. In the Forest Service, each forest is divided into districts, and in each district, there is a chief fire-suppression officer. It’s a GS 8 or 9 position responsible for crews. If you could get a helicopter, you bumped up your government service rank and got more pay. So, with all these surplus helicopters, the Forest Service is now up to its ears in helicopters. Everybody wants a helicopter in their district. Now, did we all need helicopters? No.
“So, what’s the helicopter in higher education? It’s PhD programs, and more research.”
According to the budget and enrollment fact sheets, the number of joint PhD programs has been increasing rapidly at SDSU. In 2004/05, there were 414 doctoral students. By 2012/13, that figure had increased to 655, more than a 58 percent increase. The university graduated 13 PhDs in 2004/05, while in 2012/13, it projects that 70 will graduate. That translates to a whopping increase of more than 438 percent.
“I came to SDSU in 1985,” says Gerber, “and the process was already well underway. An administrator once said to me, ‘We don’t want to be just another CSU,’ and, later, ‘We would be like the other CSUs if we didn’t have all these PhD programs.’ So, he was contemptuous of the CSU and of its teaching, especially its undergraduate mission, which is an extremely important public function. I feel it’s what the legislature has charged us to do; namely, to teach people at the undergraduate level primarily.
“We have pulled resources out of undergraduate education in order to build expensive, elite PhD programs that cater to very few students proportionately. If you step back and ask, ‘Does this contribute as much to the public good?,’ I’m not convinced…. The results of research are mixed.”
As director of the Latin American Studies program on campus, Gerber managed a $500,000 U.S. Department of Education grant between 2002 and 2009. “But the public benefits more overall,” he says, “if we focus on taking somewhat marginally prepared students and turn them into college graduates. I think that’s a big bang for the buck, socially.
“Today, there’s more inequality and less social mobility. And so, what are we doing at San Diego State? We have a student population that has holes in their K–12 education. I’m talking about the regional students. But they meet the CSU’s minimum requirements [and] we are not providing services to enough of them. We are reinforcing those trends in American society which increase inequality, and which reduce social and economic mobility. This is harmful to San Diego and the U.S.
“But you are not rewarded in the university or in your career or in your field for being an excellent teacher. You are rewarded for original research. The incentives are stacked against teaching.
“If you’re an administrator, the way you gain recognition is not because your university is excellent at teaching. It’s because your university is generating more recognized research, and you have more people who are publishing in the best journals and are getting grants. The system is designed in a way that is counter the interests of a large share of the population of San Diego.”
Perhaps the thing that has bothered Gerber most at SDSU is “a persistent marketing of the university using measures that are bogus.” Today, SDSU markets itself as a top-tier research university, but Gerber is mainly thinking of a campaign of several years ago that’s since been dropped. This campaign called the school “the best small research university.”
“That was bogus,” he says. “And it angered faculty.
“We are a university with 30,000 students. So, in what sense are we a ‘small’ research university? Well, the idea seems to have been based on a category of 15 PhD programs or fewer. This is designed to pump up the academic credentials of SDSU. This is how administrators gain stature, and perhaps better job offers, how you move up in the hierarchy of higher education. ‘I took this university from nowhere to somewhere, and this is the data to prove it.’”
Gerber’s view has its detractors. Some say faculty who want to do only the minimum amount of research for gaining and holding tenure are lazy. Others point to a common distinction between a college and a university. Colleges, it is said, are for teaching. They become universities when they add major research efforts to their teaching mission.
“That’s splitting hairs over terms,” Gerber tells me. The real issue, he thinks, is “what SDSU is supposed to be,” according to state legislative mandate, and what California taxpayers should be getting from their universities.
“What should San Diego expect from us as a regional institution? I don’t hear that dialogue on campus,” Gerber says. “We are a resource to the region. The region and its citizens are our primary constituents. But they don’t have a voice here. This gives freedom of action to administrators and others who want to take the university in a direction which may not be in the best interest of the region.
“I’m reluctant to criticize my colleagues, but it’s a self-criticism as well. We have not exercised our function as guardians of this community asset. We have turned it over to administrators, who have a different perspective on what makes a good university. Many faculty refuse to voice their concerns, out of fear and a sense that the research-dominated university is inevitable.”
In 2003, professor of biology Mark Sussman left the University of Cincinnati for SDSU. “My friends said, ‘Why are you going to a teaching school? Your research is going to die. You’ll end up sitting around drinking foo-foo drinks with little umbrellas in them.’”
Sussman tells me that he had a research-oriented position in the medical school at Cincinnati, but he and his wife wanted to return to their home state. He interviewed at UCLA and UC Irvine but chose San Diego State. He says he knew he’d be successful at SDSU if he could “capitalize on the different strength of the place.”