INSIDE Chico State
0 February 5, 2004
Volume 34 Number 7
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Who Can We Shoot? Facing a Budget Crisis


Scott G. McNall


The scene I remember best from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes a tenant farmer whose home is about to be bulldozed. Throughout the morning, the farmer and his family watch a monstrous diesel tractor plowing a straight furrow from the horizon, moving closer and closer to their door. When the driver stops near the house for lunch, he tells the farmer that after he finishes his sandwich, he will push through the house, to keep his furrow straight. The farmer says if he does, he’ll shoot him. Don’t shoot me; I’m just working for somebody else, the driver replies. The farmer wonders, then, if he should shoot the driver’s boss. The driver says his boss gets his orders from the bank, which in turn gets its from a board of directors. “But where does it stop?” the farmer asks. “Who can we shoot?” The driver has no answer. Finally the farmer says, “There’s some way to stop this. … We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”

We can, as Steinbeck’s farmer suggests, change the things we have created, but it won’t be easy. The tenant farmer was proud of his house; he had built it himself, using old nails he had straightened; he had lashed the rafters down using bailing wire. Yet, in the end, the tractor ran over it. We have created, together, over time and through collective effort, a complex institution of which we are all justifiably proud. None of us wants to lose what we have worked so hard for, but if we are to emerge intact as a university from our current economic problems, we must be very careful about what we try to save and about how we work to achieve our highest priority, serving students. We must protect those things that are vital to our identity and mission. We cannot do this by making pro rata reductions.

In Academic Affairs alone, we will have reduced the budget by almost $18 million over a three-year (2002–2005) period. This year, we used one-time savings to facilitate a transition to a lower-base budget. We restricted travel; we left staff, faculty, and administrative positions vacant; and we reduced expenditures on all operating expenses (e.g., printing, computers) over which we had control. We have worked hard to save resources to mitigate next year’s reductions.

But we cannot allow our future to be dictated by reductions, simply shrinking the university. We must do some things differently, and in some ways we must build a different kind of organization. We need to have open discussions about what is possible and what makes sense. Imagine that you are building a new university. You might want to consider such issues as these:

• Financing or the way in which we fund all current activities, including courses for the major and general education. You might want to ask about which services and fees are students’ “rights,” as opposed to those for which they should pay full costs.

• Workload of faculty, staff, and administration in light of what the university’s primary mission is. At the moment, there are at least 41 all-university committees and many committees at the department and college level. Are all of them necessary? For example, if we change the mandated way evaluations of faculty are conducted, we could save the energies of the individuals evaluated and those who review materials.

• Administrative appointments should be carefully reviewed and opportunities sought to consolidate units when it makes intellectual and economic sense to do so.

• The curriculum should be evaluated to determine what combination of courses, carefully planned and delivered, can best provide the knowledge and skills our students need for success.

This list of issues could be expanded substantially. The past has a powerful hold on us, but the past does not dictate our future. We can shape our future, if we choose.

What would be your building blocks for a new university? How would you organize the curriculum? I would be happy to hear from you. The goal is to assure that, at the end, we aren’t standing dumbfounded like the farmer asking, “Well, who do I shoot?”

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