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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.”

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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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