Dec. 13, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 3

From the President's Desk

Imagine

Why, for example, does this state continue to increase funding for the individual and societal failures represented in our prison system, as opposed to investing in hope and the state’s future through higher education? Why has Sacramento apparently forgotten that the Golden State became so largely through the work of our universities and the talented workforce and creative leaders who have emerged from them? Although we strive to provide access to an increasingly diverse population of eligible college seekers, how meaningful is access, how sure the benefits to our state, if quality in our institutions of higher learning is diminished?

photo of Paul Zingg

Instead of addressing these questions, we find our institutions discredited as the press and legislature often seize on evidence that we are not always smart, certainly not perfect, in the performance of our work. A poorly handled student protest on one campus, a questionable use of foundation funds at another, a professor who behaves badly with his colleagues, a student who misrepresents her financial need—these are the incidents and accidents that consume our critics. Yes, these and other matters reflecting shortcomings and mistakes deserve attention and remedy. Yet, often, these are the stories—stories of poor choices, not bad intentions—that our critics eagerly embrace as they look for “proof” that we are not worthy of public trust and support. Molehills become mountains in such an environment, and all our campuses are painted with a brush of incompetence and misconduct whenever something untoward or embarrassing occurs on any of them.

That is why, among all the data and news clips that flow from the Chancellor’s Office, something occasionally emerges that merits broad attention because it is a true story of achievement and a glimpse of what could be even more so. Such was the case at the most recent Board of Trustees meeting, from which any news other than another student fee increase and the disruptive reaction to it received little or no mention.

The news worthy of attention came in two parts, both within the background materials for the trustees’ proposed CSU 2012­–1013 budget. First, a chart demonstrated how Student University Fee increases have not made up for the General Fund losses. Since 2007–2008, in fact, the last year when the Governor’s Compact for Higher Education was in effect, the decreases in General Fund support have totaled $868 million. It will get worse before the end of the month, when another $100 million in cuts threatened by the governor will likely occur. Over this same period of time, Student University Fee revenue (net of the one-third set-aside for financial aid) has amounted to $592 million. The delta is $276 million, with another $100 million imminent. In other words, in this worst-case scenario, the CSU has had to absorb $376 million in cuts, notwithstanding the revenue from student fees. The bottom line: the hurt we are experiencing is real, not simply a case of student fees replacing state funds. Our campus is roughly 4.1 percent of these big numbers. The hurt is real.

Accompanying this information in the trustees’ briefing were two graphs with a story worthy of praise. Since the bottom began to fall out of state support, that is 2007–2008, average undergraduate course loads in the CSU have increased from 11.5 to 12.5 units; and first-year retention rates have improved from 81 to 84 percent, with a corresponding increase in graduation rates. At Chico State, average course loads for undergraduates have increased from 14.03 to 14.24 units; first-year retention rates have improved from 79 to 87 percent.

Think about it. While overall financial support for the CSU has declined precipitously, our performance where it matters most—student success and progress to degree—has improved steadily.

Some of our harshest critics, of course, will say that we’re finally getting our priorities right, and that we’re becoming more focused and accomplished in our mission. Yes, they may concede that on one hand, even as they look for reasons to slap us down with the other. They may never acknowledge how extraordinary our performance has been under the most trying circumstances.

But we know. We know what happens when faculty willingly take an extra student or two or three into their already crowded classrooms; when advisors and counselors spend extra time with more students, ensuring that they are on the right track; when best teaching and learning practices inform our adoption of technology; when the campus is safe and our buildings and grounds are clean and attractive; when deans and department chairpersons make classes their first priority; when students rally to our values; when friends and donors and partners gravitate to our story.

Yes, these indicators of student success and the reasons for them are worth thinking about. They are also worth imagining about. They are worth asking: what more we could accomplish if we had the resources restored that we have had removed? Imagine how many more students we could accommodate, how much more quickly we could move them through to their degrees, how much stronger the prospects for our society and economy would be with such graduates leading the way.

We need to change our tune in dealing with our critics. We need to get them to imagine abundant possibilities with us. And that begins not with demanding more, but demonstrating more. That is, demonstrating what we are accomplishing and the promise of so much more that we can achieve. The challenge is less to debate our critics about what we are doing, but to engage them more in our story. For this is a story that embraces the future and restores a sense that it can be better for our children. Imagine that.

Paul J. Zingg
President