The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If you don't know where you're going, you will probably end up somewhere else."... ...Laurence J. Peter.

Commentary of the Day - October 10, 2001:  A Presidential Puff at Krispy Kreme U. - Guest Commentary by an anonymous colleague.

(Ed. note: The following article has been contributed by a colleague of the IP at Krispy Kreme U. (aka Cal State Fullerton) who has requested anonymity.)

Cal State Fullertonís new slick PR publication Titan recently ran a puff piece about campus president Milton Gordon.  While a positive article is probably useful to offset the many negative articles that have appeared in the local media recently, I suspect that many university employees will react to this glowing whitewash in the same manner that they reacted to the glowing review that Chancellor Reed received from the Board of Trustees; i.e. with disbelief and anger.

The author, Cathy Douglas, makes many points that cause one to wonder if she exists in a parallel universe where up is down and right is left. Is the president accessible and visionary?  Is it true he does not mind it when a professor questions his decisions?  Is it his style of management to walk around the campus "going where no president has gone before," presumably boldly?  Has he made CSUF a "caring institution?"  What are his accomplishments as a member of the many community organizations to which he belongs?  Does he play an active role?  Were the awards he has received given for genuine accomplishments or just pro forma awards given because of his position?  Have his multiple trips abroad to sign "education agreements" made any significant contribution to our campus?  How many students do we have in Tibet or India?

There is a temptation to engage in a point-by-point refutation of Douglas' article, but the key question should be: what has President Gordon accomplished in his eleven years at Cal State Fullerton that would not have happened had he not been here. In other words, if he has been more than a caretaker, what is the stamp that he has put on this institution?

What has taken place here is little different from what has happened on our sister campuses.  We grown the size of our student body, raised money, developed better relations with alumni, and have developed so-called "centers of excellence."  But, so too has every other campus in the CSU.  What has the president initiated on this campus that was not tried by some other CSU president first?  Has the President done a better job of this than his colleagues?  In my view, not so that anyone has noticed.

Douglas wants to give the president credit for our increasingly diverse student body, but how much credit should he be given for the changing demographics of our service area? The President himself wants to take credit for two things, technology and planning.  We have done well in terms of technology, but others who are more familiar with that aspect of the campus will have to render judgment about the impact that our new fiber optic network has had on education, and if it was worth the cost.

Planning is another matter.  One could carp and say that planning is not doing, but that aside, where is the evidence of planning.  Certainly many planning activities have taken place, but a well-managed campus would have planned for growth and even restricted growth to our ability to handle it smoothly.  Clearly that has not happened.  If it had, then we would not be parking cars on the grass and our class sizes and student-faculty ratios would not be among the highest in the system.

Since the 1994-95 academic year our annual growth rate has been more than 900 students per year, increasing our student body by more than 35% in half a decade. No other major campus in the system has come close to that rate of growth.  San Diego State, facing even more enrollment pressure than our campus, grew at less than half our rate.  One year we exceeded our planned target by more than 10%.  Where was the planning for that growth?  Where is it now?  Parking structures and classrooms should have been built and permanent faculty hired to handle the increased student population before it arrived.  We will be playing catch-up for years to come.  The quality of education on this campus, the faculty workload and even the quality of life, has suffered.

Douglas' article also makes note of our efforts to hire an "increasingly innovative and impressive faculty." To the contrary, we are having trouble maintaining the quality of our current presumably less innovative and impressive faculty.  In 1995 we had 612 full time faculty and 513 part time faculty. In the fall of 1999 we had 649 full time faculty and 839 part time faculty.  Our unrestrained growth has been met by enlarging class size and filling the gaps with part time faculty.

Why were more tenure track faculty not hired to deal with the influx of students during the earlier years of President Gordonís tenure, once the financial crises of the early 1990s was over?  Not only have permanent faculty not been hired to keep pace with growth, but adequate numbers of faculty have not even been hired to replace the massive number of faculty that have retired or will be retiring in the next few years.  Now we are trying to play catch-up and the recruits are no longer there in sufficient numbers.  A far-sighted leader would have recognized that the aging faculty would soon have to be replaced.  This is an exceptional failure in judgment.  What was the purpose of all of these planning activities of which the president is so proud?  What was the result?

President Gordonís legacy is that of a lack of vision, missed opportunities and rampant unplanned growth that has eroded the quality of education on this campus.  His "vision" for the future, as outlined in the article, is no more than a continuation of the caretaker governance of the past 11 years and not adequate for the situation that the campus is now in.  It is nothing more than a reflection of forces at work outside the campus and an attempt to correct for the poor decisions of the past.

It is frequently remarked about President Gordon that "he could be worse."  This is a risk we need to take. Ten years is a long enough time in office for any college president, too long for one without a shared vision for the campus. It is time for the President Gordon to retire.
The Irascible Professor comments:  The IP agrees with many of his anonymous colleague's comments about President Gordon, disagrees with a few, and perhaps has a different overall take on our current campus president.  First, let me say that President Gordon is a very pleasant, personable individual.  It is obvious to the IP that he does care about the campus and its students.  That said, his tenure at Cal State Fullerton has been at best a "mixed bag".

On the positive side, President Gordon had the courage to terminate the football program, which was an enormous financial drain on the campus.  He also has greatly improved the visibility of the campus in the surrounding community and with our alumni.  He deserves credit for revitalizing an alumni relations program that was essentially dead when he arrived.  (The new alumni/community magazine Titan is a great improvement over previous efforts.)  He also deserves credit for expanding our private fundraising efforts, although that operation has had its share of problems in the recent past.  In addition it is fair to say that services for students have improved during his tenure.

On the negative side, his relationship with faculty has been strained for most of his tenure, although it has improved somewhat in the last few years.  Throughout its history the Fullerton campus has had a tradition for a level of shared governance that has been stronger than most of the campuses in the CSU system.  This seems to have rankled President Gordon a bit more than his predecessors, although all of them, at times, have chafed under the constraints imposed by this "Fullerton way".  Fullerton also has had a reputation for having a faculty that was more active in research, scholarly and creative activities than those at many of our sister campuses.  The presidents who preceded Dr. Gordon all had respectable scholarly credentials; and, they all had an understanding of the important relationship between the "life of the mind" and the vitality of the institution.  President Gordonís background is primarily in teaching and administration, and he always has seemed somewhat disinterested in and perhaps a bit threatened by the scholarly achievements of the faculty.

President Gordon has been primarily an "outward looking" chief executive.  By that I mean that he has focussed his energies heavily on developing relationships between the university and the outside world.  In the IP's opinion, he has been better at this than most of his predecessors.  However, in the process he has delegated too many of the day-to-day operations of the university to subordinates who seem to have been chosen more for loyalty than for competence.  During his tenure there have been problems in several key areas of administration.  The university has been on the losing side of several expensive lawsuits, it has been the subject of embarrassing media articles, two of its internal auditors have resigned abruptly, and external auditors have discovered a number of management deficiencies.

At present faculty morale is at low ebb.  Part of this problem is beyond President Gordonís control.  Much of it can be traced to the poor relationship between faculty and the current system Chancellor, Charlie Reed.  However, the problems at Fullerton have been exacerbated by too rapid growth in the number of students without a corresponding increase in facilities and full-time faculty, and by too little attention on the part of the administration to the decline in the quality of faculty life as a result of this too rapid growth.

Is it time for President Gordon to retire?  Like his anonymous colleague the IP would say yes, but for a different reason.  The IP has held some (petty) administrative posts over the years.  From that experience he has learned that most university administrators begin to stagnate after five to seven years in a given position.  Even relatively dynamic university administrators begin to look like "caretakers" as their tenure extends beyond the seven-year mark.  There have been a few exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.