“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
As the second review approached, says Scott, investigators assumed that “I wanted to reduce their Research Support Fund again, which I never wanted to do in the first place.”
Sussman and a number of other researchers on campus organized themselves into an advocacy group and put up a website, which they used to express their opinions about what was going on. Emails back and forth between Scott and the investigators were saved for viewing on the website.
“Other than Tom, the researchers didn’t have a voice in the administration,” Sussman says. “And they believed [Tom] wasn’t helping...the people doing the heavy lifting, in terms of generating funding. He had a different agenda.”
I ask Sussman if he can relate all this to Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty.
“Ginsberg,” he says, “posits that, over the course of decades, faculty have ceded control of the business aspects of the university to the administration. The idea used to be that administrators were going to be responsive to the needs of the faculty. The problem comes when there’s a fundamental disconnect between what the faculty perceive as their needs and what the administrators implement.
“Every time the administration says, ‘Maybe we should give you guys less money,’ we say, ‘The reason we’re here, in part, is that money, and you’re going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. You may get a little bit in return, but in the end you’ll be done, because we won’t be here anymore.’”
The group of investigators, says Scott, agitated so much that the Research Foundation’s board “decided the second review was going to create more trouble than it was worth, and nothing ever came of it.”
So, the researchers got their way.
“Now, President Hirshman, who’s heard the legacy of these stories,” says Sussman, “has referred to it as the third rail of dealing with the investigators on campus. You know the third-rail analogy,” Sussman says, laughing. “Electrocute yourself.”
So far, Sussman is optimistic that Hirshman is moving ahead with strong support for research. But he’s disappointed that the level of researchers’ representation on the foundation board has not gone up.
“Close to 80 percent of the funding of the board comes from extramural grant money,” Sussman says. “So why wouldn’t the same percentage of the voting rights on the board belong to the investigators?” The level of the researchers’ representation is closer to 20 percent now.
“We want to see the composition of the board shifted away from administrators to investigators, and particularly to high-impact investigators. A university’s research enterprise lives on people who generate large amounts of funding. My perhaps self-serving position is that, if you want to make research successful, you should ask the researchers who are successful how to do that.”
For most matters other than research, especially those involving the campuswide budget, Sussman is happy to have administrators handle jobs faculty are too busy, or unwilling, to tackle. He has no inclination, as Jim Gerber does, for instance, to lobby for local residents having greater access to a SDSU education. He believes the recruitment of out-of-state students is justified as one of the several revenue streams that preserve SDSU’s current financial health. “We’ve got to pay the bills somehow,” Sussman says.
Still, in his quest for a greater role for faculty in managing research, he bucks a strong trend in higher education. “Backed by their administrative legions,” writes Ginsberg in The Fall of the Faculty, “university presidents and other senior administrators have been able, at most schools, to dispense with faculty involvement in campus management, and thereby to reduce the faculty’s influence in university affairs.”
But what of those San Diegans who are qualified to get into SDSU but cannot? Out-of-state students are driving up qualifications for admission. That’s normal, according to Sussman, as the university improves in research and other areas.
President Hirshman told the U-T San Diego last August: “We are recruiting more out-of-state students…to make sure we have the revenue to support California students.” He became more specific in an appearance before the SDSU University Senate in December. He told the faculty that recruitment would help maintain a high level of local admissions. Several former administrators from president Stephen Weber’s administration told me they believed that SDSU has done remarkably well in serving local students, especially given the reductions over the past decade in the California legislature’s CSU funding.
By another metric, however, SDSU is not doing so well. In 2010, the legislature passed a bill (SB 1440) promoting greater transfer opportunities for community-college students into the Cal State university that serves their region. The Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that co-sponsored the bill, then followed up in November 2012 with a study of its progress. The study reported that, among the 23 CSU campuses, “Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Diego are failing on nearly all measures of SB 1440 implementation.” The report ranked SDSU dead last.
Many Californians, especially from the San Diego region, are counting on President Hirshman to keep his promise.
A word of caution can be found in The Fall of the Faculty. Benjamin Ginsberg writes: “Administrators say their goal is to strengthen their institutions in order to better equip them to pursue their teaching and research missions.” Ginsberg asks, however, that we look at “what administrators do, rather than what they say.” Too often, what they do is use “a good many tuition and research dollars to reward themselves and expand their own ranks.”