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Sussman describes that strength as a “flexibility that comes from the lack of [the] bureaucratic juggernaut” that supports research at places like the University of California campuses.

“In hard times, though,” he says, “that lack can be a handicap. Because that’s when you need an established structure to support you. But I figured that, if I create my own infrastructure by building what I need within my own walls, and not depend on the school to build it for me, I can make a run at this. I’m usually best when I’m left alone, anyway.”

Right away, Sussman began buying equipment, some of it on eBay. Then he talked the SDSU administration into transforming a couple of classrooms in the Life Sciences building into a laboratory.

On a tour of the lab, I see slides with slices of heart tissue taken from mice that will be examined under a microscope. There is imaging equipment that allows the beating hearts of live animals to be seen. There are also many odd-looking machines I have little time to comprehend. In the lab, the molecular structure of animal heart tissue is being used to help study the human heart. Undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars all work as part of Sussman’s research group. The lab has evolved into the Molecular Biology Laboratory of the Heart Institute at SDSU.


“When the UC system was formed,” Sussman says, “they built into it the mechanisms and bureaucracy to deal with funding, knowing that they were going to be a research university. That was never done for the CSUs. All of the research enterprise that’s grown up inside the CSU has been bootstrapped onto the system after the fact. The research, then, has driven an expansion of the infrastructure and the administration necessary for oversight.

“When a grant is awarded, they don’t just hand me a check for $200,000 and say, ‘Spend it on whatever you want.’ The school, through its Research Foundation, makes sure I spend it in compliance with federal guidelines, monitors progress-report deadlines, and makes sure I spend the monies only for the purposes for which they were awarded.”

Mark Sussman

Mark Sussman

The SDSU Research Foundation is an “auxiliary organization” and not strictly a part of the university. But Sussman argues that the university and the foundation are “like Siamese twins. They may have two hearts, but they share a blood supply.”

The foundation has its own CEO, while SDSU’s president is the head of its board of directors. The foundation’s purpose is largely to manage the money the university accumulates in research funding.

Researchers at SDSU have always been told, says Sussman, “that research must be a self-funded enterprise on this campus. We need to be as autonomous as possible. But this university does something rare, and it’s the main reason why research succeeds here. It diverts a relatively small amount of the overhead funds it receives [from grants] to individuals. [Here, that diverted] money is called Research Support Funds.”

Overhead funds are typically intended to cover the costs of research done on campus. For example, a university will bill the National Science Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health, two federal agencies that fund much research, up to 50 percent extra of the value of the grant. The school can put the money in its general fund for covering things such as water, electricity, and other costs, but they do not have to document how they spend it. It’s widely known that universities take in more in overhead than the research costs them. At SDSU, this overhead goes into the Research Foundation, where it might be invested in real estate, and can be withdrawn by the university as needed.

“The university will say to me,” Sussman continues, “‘Mark, based on the amount of overhead you earned this year, we’re going to release to you a certain amount to fix up your laboratory and keep it running. And you can put on there things that you can’t put on your grant, such as buying new computers, and air-conditioning systems to chill down the freezer room, [and] hosting outside speakers to come in and visit your lab and connect your lab on a national and international level.’

“SDSU does have this mechanism in place, and it was one of the main reasons I came here. It’s something that every single extramural-funded researcher on this campus depends upon to keep their research operation going.

“The attitude of the researchers is that we bring something to the environment that benefits the teaching mission of the university. All those students in my laboratory are exposed to research hands-on, most for the first time in their lives. We’re just teaching in the lab, as opposed to teaching in a classroom, and we would like the school to recognize that by underwriting some of the costs.

“But SDSU is not essentially a research university. It’s a community-based San Diego regional campus that has global impact…. That impact is not because of the classes we teach. It’s because of the research we do. Go to the SDSU website and see the kinds of research that is happening in terms of global warming, cardiovascular disease, education, and health-disparities research.”


As we talk in Sussman’s office, he pulls a copy of Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty off a shelf. I ask how he first became aware of the book, and he says that during a “disconnect” with the university administration over funding for his lab, a colleague recommended he read the book to put the problem in context.

In 2010, in the minds of some researchers (also known as “primary investigators”) on campus, the door seemed to be slamming on Research Support Funds. Tom Scott, then SDSU’s vice president of research, wanted “to divert the funds to other causes,” Sussman says. “He championed this as something that was best for the school.”

But Scott, who says his tenure “helped transform SDSU from a teaching to a research university,” sees what happened differently. It started in 2008, he tells me by phone, when, concurrently with his campus jobs (including dean of graduate studies), he worked as the temporary CEO of the Research Foundation. The board of directors had ordered a review of the Research Support Funds, which, Scott explains, are 12 percent of overhead funds at SDSU. That’s six times higher at SDSU than the national average. “I noted that fact in a report to the board, but I also defended the funds for the same reasons that Mark was saying they’re important. I felt that it was a balanced response. The board accepted this but said they would like the situation revisited in two years.”

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Mario Garrett March 28, 2013 @ 3:39 a.m.

Nothing will change. Despite having some excellent teaching professors, published researchers and students with high GPA, SDSU remains stuck in a quagmire of autocratic administrative practices. With more budget cuts predicted, it is just as predictable that these administrative practices will become more evident. Last year’s settlement with the whistleblower David Ohton for $2.7million (Union Tribune, 2/2/2011) in which “…(Sally) Roush covered up the allegations” is the latest legal settlement where SDSU administrators’ concealment cost Californians money. By settling out of court and not having to admit any wrongdoing, the system protects the very same people that we need to examine. It is business as usual. There remains at SDSU a culture of abuse, mismanagement, ineptitude and/or complacency. University administrators can flaunt federal law (Whistleblower Protection Act) with impunity since they have liability insurance to cover them and their chosen friends. Settlements mean nothing to SDSU that has insurance against such continuing practices.

A Kafkaesque travesty of punishing the whistleblowers, while at the same time rewarding other faculty who break university policy (and the law) plagues SDSU repeatedly. History reveals a university littered by such moral failures. In 2009, former Athletic Director Jeff Schemmel, after “improper use of state funds,” resigned and was rewarded by a $136,000 settlement. That same year an employee Courtney Bale was awarded $150,000 for sex discrimination charges that she brought against SDSU. In 2008, swim coach Deena Deardruff Schmidt settled for $1.45 million--again for sex discrimination. In 2005, Athletic Department equipment manager Steve Bartel settled (for $60,000)--a suit with seven allegations, including defamation, discrimination and emotional distress.

Most of the time administrators wear down out-of-favor faculty members. Professor Jim Burns, the mechanical engineering professor, experienced three years of harassment, retaliation and obstructionism perpetrated by administrators. He reports that he told SDSU’s Provost Nancy Marlin “You can't say you weren't informed.”

The sad part of this tragedy is not that these issues happen; it is that they happen everyday and that there is no one to stop them.

By settling out of court, the administrative failings remain hidden. There is no public outcry because there is no pointing finger. The CSU has bought a get-out-of-jail-free card. By having state-funded insurance that protect administrators and their friends from prosecution, they can act with impunity. However, whenever these administrative failings happen, we, as an institution, lose a little bit more integrity. With an ever-increasing administrative layer that are accountable to no one the priorities of an educational establishment changes.


Mario Garrett is a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University.

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Visduh March 29, 2013 @ 10:39 a.m.

It is absolutely amazing that the only comment posted so far is one from a SDSU professor. With the tens (actually hundreds) of thousands of SDSU grads and those who had connections to SDSU in the county, only he has made a comment.

While I get the point that Ginsberg is making, that these universities now seem to exist for the benefit of administrators, and very well-rewarded ones at that, the article seems to be two articles in one. The first one is about the educational mission of the CSU's and how undergraduates are getting short shrift. The second one is about the research activity, and there's little tie between the pieces, except that administrators are screwing both missions. So, based on the headline, I'd have appreciated seeing more about the shortfall by SDSU and other CDU's in the area of undergrad education, and perhaps the second part in another article.

SDSU has been inexplicably popular with in-state students for a long time. (My association goes back over 40 years.) And to a greater or lesser degree, when all those eager undergrads arrive on campus they have had to deal with a lack of space in the classes they need. That results in something I call "the San Diego State disease", wherein it is a rare undergrad who completes a bachelors degree in four years. (Let's remember that we call those a "four-year degree.") Recently SDSU claimed improvement in the metric of students earning degrees when it pushed up the number who complete their requirements in SIX years to something over half. So, six years to earn a BA/BS is the norm there. The reasons are many, and this phenomenon cannot be solely blamed on a shortage of classes. There's a laid-back, beach-style culture there that says, "What's the hurry?" And under-prepared students often really struggle to get through the curriculum.

In the 70's and 80's, the campus was overrun with those who wanted to major in business administration. That college was maxed out for many years, and may still be, for all I know. The university did nothing to restrict the numbers of such majors, and at the same time did not allow that area to grow to a point of meeting the demand. The always-arrogant Tom Day, longtime SDSU president, was quoted as saying that if the students arrived and could not get to study things they wanted to study, well then, they would study things that did have space in the classes! (One area that fell into disfavor was the foreign languages, especially after the requirement to study one as part of the bachelors degree was dropped.) This sort of thing happens almost everywhere to some degree, but SDSU has been getting away with it for decades, and now with state support steadily waning, is undoubtedly getting worse.

I think many of us would like to learn more about what is really happening at SDSU, and how all this research and participation in joint doctoral programs is negatively affecting the very things the CSU is supposed to be doing.

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Mario Garrett March 30, 2013 @ 6:32 p.m.

San Diego State University is running on a flawed system of public funding and private profits. In August 2010, an article in the Los Angeles Times by Carla Rivera exposed “…evidence that [CSU] officials are improperly depositing public funds into the accounts of nonprofit campus foundations and have failed to correct the problem despite warnings from auditors.” Is this simply a hiccup or a testament of how “state” universities do business? SDSU has multiple layers of funding. In the 2011-12 SDSU budget of $768 million, only 17 percent is coming from state appropriations (while tuition fees comprise 24 percent.) Although state appropriations comprise an increasingly diminishing proportion of the total budget, these funds are the heart of higher education — because state funds exclusively pay for faculty.

When faculty bring money in for research or activities, that money is funneled through foundations as private funds — and for which the university takes a proportion, in some case more than 50 percent, as indirect costs (known as facilities and administration costs or F&A). These faculty--and administrators--are given time off to conduct their research or fundraising, using state funds. They are excused from teaching so that they can work full time--with public funds--to bringing in private profits to the university. With this public funding and private-profit model, it is clear that having more administrators and research faculty improves the university’s chances of getting more private money.

When state appropriations shrink it behooves administration to offset the loss of funding by attracting private contributions, increasing tuition costs and making classes cheaper. By maintaining a strong administrative core the university ensures a continuing supply of private funds. In order to maintain a large administrative core, SDSU had to cut teaching faculty which resulted in increasing class size, diminished enrollment, limiting offerings and increasing workload for teaching faculty. The numbers of tenured professors within the CSU system have been on the decline since 1987, while part-time faculty (cheaper) are becoming an increasingly larger part of the CSU system. Part-timers rose nationally from 36 percent of the faculty in 1990 to 46 percent in 2003, but by 2008 half of all teaching at the CSU is done by part-timers (49 percent). While the CSU replaced tenured professors with part-time teachers, tenured administrators mushroomed. Ralph D. Westfall crunched the numbers and while full-time faculty in the whole CSU system rose 3.5% between 1975 and 2008, administrators rose 221% If this trend continues, Westfall notes, there could be two administrators per full-time faculty in another generation. What Carla Rivera exposed was not just a hiccup but a culture of doing business within San Diego State University.

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kstaff March 29, 2013 @ 12:55 p.m.

The article really says it all, which might be why so few comments. It partially explains the proliferation of superflous administrative positions with resulting periodic "budget crises," and--believe me--administrators will administer empty classrooms before they'll eliminate one of their own positions.

The problem really is that every institution wants "status," and of course the money that comes with it. The original education plan for California, with its clear delineation between the roles of community colleges, the Cal State system, and the UC system, has been twisted beyond recognition.

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Visduh March 29, 2013 @ 4:36 p.m.

Some of that master plan just didn't sell with the students. Back in the 60's the community colleges lamented that whereas they were intended to have about 2/3 of their offerings in the purely vocational areas, before the ink was dry on the plan, 3/4 of the course attendance was in academic subjects that would transfer to four year colleges. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the then "state colleges" were supposed to provide bachelors degrees, some masters degrees, and to train teachers. Teaching was paramount there. Their fulfillment of that mission has been weakening steadily for decades. SDSU, for example, now has fewer than half the teachers-in-training that it had circa 1970, and operations like National University have come along to fill the gap. That is doubly galling because SDSU started out as a normal school, a teachers college, and did a great job of it for the first fifty to seventy years of its existence. Now that is an afterthought. Oh, there is so much more that can be examined and said about this whole pattern of status seeking.

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Joe Deegan April 1, 2013 @ 6:32 p.m.

Visduh's contention that the story is actually two stories would be true if the perspectives of the two main characters did not oppose each other over the role and value of research on campus. Besides Sussman's complaint about one conflict with administration, he makes a rather strong case for the way research is pursued for the most part at SDSU. And his position is that research adds to the strength of the university, including the way "hands-on" participation in research benefits undergraduates. Gerber does not devalue research per se, only the concentration of it in the joint Ph.D. programs. This, and the way SDSU promotes being a research university rather than the teaching university the Master Plan called up the CSUs to be, is the backbone of his critique. When you toss in the issue of limited access for qualified local students, the situation begins to look even more unbalanced.
Where I definitely agree with Visduh is in his call for more attention to how all the emphasis on the Ph.D. programs is taking resources away from undergrads. Besides the sheer strain of extra work for faculty involved in both graduate and undergraduate education. there is bound to be more to learn about the drawbacks. Then again, Sussman and other faculty might be able to point our how having Ph.D. students on campus benefit undergrads.

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Visduh April 1, 2013 @ 7:18 p.m.

My thought was that the story went far beyond the headline, and that there was so much to be said about the degradation of undergraduate education that it didn't need to share space with the research activities. Actually, I've been saying the same things you express. In fact, I'll put it in simple terms: to the degree that research is emphasized on a university campus, the less effort/attention/resources are placed on undergraduate education. And I've said many times that if you looked at a list of priorities on a typical UC campus, out of the top twenty items, undergraduate education would be twentieth. That's pretty radical, I suppose, and I'm an old man with not a radical bone in my body.

Thanks for getting the real conflict out in the open. The CSU's were designed as teaching universities, but other than "Cow" Poly campuses, none of them seem willing to really glorify their teaching role. They are all filled with the usual "publish or perish" doctorates, and administrators who use that for their own schemes.

We are both on the "same page."

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Joe Deegan April 1, 2013 @ 7:42 p.m.

Interesting. I had a conversation with Steve Erie the other day, the director of the Urban Studies program at UCSD. Erie tells me that UCSD's chancellor is making noises about moving in the direction of more attention to undergraduate education, and that the Urban Studies program might play a role in that move by helping generate more university involvement in local communities. If that goes very far, as Erie expressed it, then both SDSU and UCSD would be changing the directions that the Master Plan originally gave them.

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Visduh April 1, 2013 @ 8:05 p.m.

For many years now, UCLA has been "making noises" about reaching out to the 'hoods of LA that are not affluent. But upon a close look, most of it is just noise, not action. An elite-dominated campus such as that one, in its insulated Westwood location, can pretend it cares about the huge reaches of non-affluent LA, and maybe some people there really care. But does that campus want to knock itself out to admit less-qualified local attendees when it can have its pick of out-of-state top of their class applicants (especially when they pay more)? In fact if you want to see the epitome of what Ginsberg/Gerber/Garrett are describing, look no farther than UCLA. It, along with sister campus Berkeley, has carried the concept of a public research university to its (il)logical conclusion, and now grossly under-serves its undergrads while glorifying its research faculty in a shameless manner. And SDSU wants to be another one of those operations? Yes it does. Weep.

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