"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty--power is ever stealing from the many to the few." ....Wendell Phillips.

Commentary of the Day - November 20, 2011: How to Steal a University.  Commentary by The Irascible Professor.

"Steal a university" you might ask incredulously.  Why would anyone want to steal a university?

The answer to that question is not so obvious.  It lies hidden in the depths of the corporate mind.  But, right here in the formerly golden state of California not only has a university campus been stolen, but an entire university system has been purloined.

The California State University System was once the proud possession of the people of California.  In fact, many referred to the CSU as the "people's university."  Unlike the more prestigious and more elite University of California System, which also started out as a people's university, but which in recent times has catered mostly to the sons and daughters of the economically elite and to that sliver of the general population that might be termed the academically elite -- the California State University System once prided itself on being able to offer a college education to the children of poor and middle-class Californians who were intelligent, competent students, but who -- for the most part -- would not be considered a part of the academically elite.  Many were or are the first members of their family to study at the university level.

To be sure, a modest percentage of CSU students are extremely bright and would do well at any college or university in the country.  But, these students, owing to economic or family circumstances, find it much more convenient to enroll in a CSU campus close to home.

The CSU System was designed to be a great engine of social mobility.  These were the campuses that gave the sons and daughters of the poor and lower middle-class a pathway to a career that paid decently and contributed to the economic well-being of California.  The deal was simple and straight-forward.  The taxpayers of the State of California would pay for the bulk of the cost of operating the CSU System.  Students would pay minimal fees.  The graduates of the system would move on to careers in commerce, industry, and public service within the state.  They would become executives, teachers, pharmacists, nurses, accountants, etc.  Over their lifetimes they would earn significantly more than those without a college education.  In the process, California would collect significantly more tax revenue from these college graduates, enough to repay the cost of their education many times over.  Higher education contributed both the the benefit of the individual graduate, and to the public welfare.  Public higher education was considered an investment, and a good one at that for the state.  The "people's university" earned its keep.

This process worked reasonably well until a little over 20 years ago, though seeds of the problem can be traced back to the passage of Proposition 13 by California voters in 1978.  The loss of local property tax revenue shifted the burden for funding public K-14 schools largely to the state.  The subsequent passage by California voters of Proposition 98 in 1988, which guaranteed through a complicated formula minimum funding levels for public schools significantly reduced the flexibility of the legislature in the budgeting process.  An economic downturn shortly thereafter set the stage for the theft of the California State University System.

When the downturn hit funding for the California State University System was one of the few discretionary parts of the state budget that remained under the legislature's control.  As a result, the system had to cope with substantial budget cuts while still continuing to accept qualified applicants as required by state law.  One of the principal methods used to cope with these budget shortfalls was a sharp increase in the hiring of part-time faculty members.  Not only were these part-time faculty members paid at a lower rate generally than full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty; but, for most of these part-time faculty members the system could avoid the cost of retirement and health-care benefits.

As the years went by the percentage of classes taught by part-time faculty members grew and the percentage taught by full-time faculty members shrank.  This caused a shift in the balance of power on the CSU campuses.  Before the budget crisis of the early 1990s, most campuses in the system had relative lean administrative structures with relatively few positions above the level of dean or director.  However, as the ratio of part-timers to full-time faculty grew, many of the quasi-administrative tasks that formerly had been handled by full-time  faculty members had to be shifted to new administrative departments.  Many of these functions formerly carried out by faculty and staff members under the direction of a dean or director were shifted entirely to the administration.  Suddenly, there was an explosion in the number of vice-presidents, associate vice-presidents, and assistant vice presidents on the campuses.  Each of these factotums was entitled to a retinue of assistants and staff members.  Though still few in number compared to the number of faculty members, the members of this new upper echelon of administration were handsomely paid compared to faculty members.  They began to form a self-sustaining and self-perpetuating bureaucracy on the campuses.

The notion of shared university governance that until then characterized most of the campuses began to be honored in the breach than in the observance.  More and more of the decision making on the campus became centralized in administrative bureaucracies that were led by campus presidents who were chosen more for their presumed managerial skills than for their academic qualifications.  Over the period from about 1990 to the present, these administrative bureaucracies succeeded in stealing the CSU from the people.  The managers became less and less concerned with the quality of the product (graduate) they were producing, and more and more concerned with how cheaply they could produce that product while protecting their own turf and maximizing their own incomes.

However, only so much could be done by hiring cheap faculty labor.  As state budgets continued to become more constrained and the state contribution to the operation of the CSU shrank, it became necessary to increase revenue by other means.  The only other means readily available was to increase the contribution of the students through higher tuition and fees.

The plot shows the change in CSU tuition for a full-time student with time (blue line) for the past decade or so, and compares it with inflation in the cost of living over the same period of time (red line).  The startling result is that there has been a nearly 418% increase in CSU tuition during the same period that the consumer price index has risen only 35%.

The California Faculty Association, the CSU faculty union, has computed the the pay increases for the Chancellor, the campus presidents, and the faculty over a slightly longer period (1998 base year) and found that the Chancellor's salary increased by 66%, the campus presidents salary by 71%, and faculty salaries have increased by only 27% over a period where inflation was about 39%.   Clearly, the faculty have lost ground, while the administrators have gained ground.  But the biggest losers are the students and their parents, who are the ones paying for the administrative bloat.

The formerly tuition-free CSU campuses have -- in effect -- been stolen from the people through these outrageous tuition increases to fund overpaid campus bureaucracies that contribute little or nothing to the fundamental mission of the university.  The cost of tuition plus campus fees now exceeds $7,000 per year in the CSU.  When books and living expenses are included the cost to attend a CSU campus now exceeds $18,000 for a student who lives at home, and more than $21,000 for a student living on or near campus.

Recently, the Chancellor solidified the control of the CSU bureaucracy over the system by convincing the Board of Trustees to carry out searches for new campus presidents essentially in secret.  With several campus presidencies now open, searches are being conducted without the finalists names being released to the public, and without the finalists participating in open meetings with campus constituencies as they had in the past.  What better way could the Chancellor find to ensure that his chosen cronies are placed in these positions?

In subsequent commentaries the Irascible Professor will suggest ways that the people of California can take back their university system, so that it will be more affordable, and more accountable.

2011, Dr. Mark H. Shapiro.
Dr. Shapiro, the Irascible Professor, taught physics at California State University, Fullerton for 37 years before his retirement in 2007.

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© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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