Mar. 29, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 5

From the President's Desk

A Game of Throes

president paul zingg

In early May, we will see the governor’s so-called May Revise, an update of the initial state budget for next year which he presented in January. This will signal to the legislature that it is time to get serious about moving on the proposed budget for 2012–2013 as there will be less than two months left until the end of June, when state law dictates that a final budget be determined.

This year, as usual, there are both familiar pressures and new political elements influencing the budget debate in Sacramento. Among the former is the “rule by referendum” in California, which particularly traces its paralyzing effect on budget development to Proposition 13 in 1978 and its severe limitations on property taxes. A whole series of propositions followed trying to undue the harm of Prop 13. Most notably was Proposition 98 passed in 1985, which guaranteed a certain percentage of the state General Fund budget to K–12 education. The result of both of these measures was a reduction of state tax revenues, the establishment of an ironclad entitlement for K–12, and, therefore, less funding for any entity or need which fell within the shrinking discretionary portion of the state budget. That is, the portion where higher education sits.

New elements this season—or at least new every four years—are a presidential election and the increased partisan edginess that it brings to state and local politics. We are also seeing a greater eagerness from both sides of the aisle in Sacramento to find fault with the CSU. Whether as victims of a budget game that does not favor higher education or as authors of actions that invite criticism and doubt about our priorities and practices, such as student fee increases, enrollment reductions, and executive salaries, we are more vulnerable than ever to unfriendly budget decisions and hostile judgments about our performance.

In other words, we have been pushed to explain ourselves and defend ourselves. It is not a winning posture in which to be, because we do not control the message. We are forced to play a reactionary game, and in this case, I believe, a strong defense is not the best offense.

Yes,we are capable of mounting a good story, even a compelling one. We tout, for example, the notion that the CSU is “working for California,” through the significant contributions of our graduates to every key segment of the California workforce. But this is not a sufficient argument because, in large measure, we do so much more. And, in this regard, I am reminded of Marion Wright Edelman’s observation that the purpose of higher education is not just to prepare students “to make a living, but also to make a life.” And I am heartened by abundant evidence to this effect at Chico State.

Consider the following developments just within the last two weeks:

For the sixth time in the last seven years, we have earned a place on the U.S. President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Role.

For the seventh consecutive year, nearly a hundred of our students, primarily from the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management, spent their spring break helping others. This year, they went to Joplin, Missouri, to help with the recovery of that town after the devastating tornadoes of 2011.

And, for the fifth time in the last six years, we have raised more money than any college or university in the country to support cancer research for children at St. Jude. In fact, the total raised this year was almost 50 percent more than the runner-up institution.

Among countless other examples and participants, this is what volunteerism and community engagement look like at Chico State. This is why a major focus of our yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary of our founding is on service through the My Service Counts initiative. And this is how we demonstrate that what the CSU is accomplishing for California goes far beyond the job readiness of our graduates.

The night before our students left campus for Joplin, I spent some time with them to thank them and to wish them well—but also to point out to them the rare opportunity they have not only to apply their learning and skills to help others, but also to develop in that experience an inclination for doing this throughout their lifetime. In fact, to appreciate what it means to be a Chico State student, and eventually a Chico State alum, within whom can be observed a harmony between the values we profess and proclaim as an institution, and the values we live and enact. And just as these students have mentors in our faculty and staff who effect and “teach” this harmony, so, too, they stand witness to the goodness of our campus and the value of the CSU.

We do not expect that resources from the state will flow to us because we are intrinsically worthy. They will come because what we are accomplishing here and throughout the CSU is vital to economic development, community vitality, the strength of our social fabric, and the overall prospects for prosperity. Not all of our work and contributions are readily quantifiable. But it can be attested. And our story—our case—will gain so much more traction if it emphasizes the triumph of our values and efforts through the commitments and accomplishments of our students, not the torment of our deprivations and troubles. In this game, we do not deny the latter. But we declare that an imperiled institution is not a defeated one and that the strength of our state and nation depends on institutions like ours, which are focused as much on the lives our students will lead as the arena in which they will find employment.

Paul J. Zingg President  

(Photo courtesy of Frank Rebelo)