Adela de la Torre
Adela de la Torre . Photo courtesy UC Davis

By Peter C. Herman

So SDSU now has a new president: Adela de la Torre, ex-vice-chancellor of student affairs at UC Davis. The reception (except for a dyspeptic op ed by an ultra-right wing commentator) has been rhapsodic.

“It’s fantastic that the new president is a woman, and it’s fantastic that she’s Chicano, especially given how SDSU is now a designated ‘Hispanic Serving Institution’ by the Department of Education,” said a “veteran” English Professor at SDSU (me). “There’s a lot of excitement about the new president. She’s dynamic and decisive,” said the veteran fund-raiser, Kit Sickels, who led SDSU’s first capital campaign. Comments around the campus are equally ecstatic.

But the process the Chancellor’s Office used to choose President de la Torre left a great deal to be desired. Except for a small, advisory group, the entire SDSU community was completely locked out.

In the past, candidates arrived on campus, gave a talk, and then the audience mercilessly interrogated them. We asked our potential leaders where they stood on crucial issues, and then, we delivered our responses to the search committee. In other words, we had input. When the finalist was chosen, we had a sense of who was going to lead the university, and they had a sense of us.

Not this time. In order, we were told, to get the best candidates, the search had to be conducted in absolute secrecy. No opportunity to vet our future president in advance. No opportunity for the candidates to meet with SDSU administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

Then, adding insult to injury, the administration did not tell us that a choice had been made. We had to read about in the newspapers. No wonder we felt a little disrespected.

Peter C. Herman

While it certainly appears that Adela de la Torre is a great choice for SDSU, there are still a few questions I would have liked to ask her before the Chancellor’s Office made their choice. Perhaps the hiring committee asked these questions, and got satisfactory answers. But we don’t know what was said.

First, her two predecessors, Stephen Weber and Elliot Hirshman, came to SDSU with substantial experience running a university. Weber was president of SUNY Oswego before serving as the interim provost for the SUNY system. Hirshman served as provost and senior vice-president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. De la Torre, on the other hand, served as vice-chancellor of student affairs and campus diversity. How will de la Torre remedy her relative lack of experience?

Second, SDSU is presently embroiled in yet another debate over whether to keep the Aztec as the school’s mascot. Probably we should get rid of it, as generally speaking, using human beings as a mascot is not a good idea. But there’s actually a larger issue: football. SDSU wants the Qualcomm Stadium site as a satellite campus surrounding a new football stadium, and we are endlessly told that football is essential to school spirit and fundraising. The harm inflicted by the Aztec mascot is abstract, but the harm inflicted by tackle football is anything but.

Study after study has shown that football destroys the human brain. Nor is the damage restricted to professionals. Playing tackle football before the age of 12 doubles the risk for later behavioral issues and executive functioning problems, and triples the risk of depression. As a result, Americans seem to be falling out of love with the sport, as shown by the declining numbers of people who watch football.

Plus there are the financial shenanigans accompanying the football program at SDSU. The  2016 State Auditor’s Report revealed that new assistant football coaches were illegally reclassified as managers so they could receive starting annual salaries of $150,000 each. And do I need to mention the princely sums the football coach earns? I will anyway: Rocky Long has a base salary of $826,304 (almost twice de la Torre’s salary of $428,645) and a maximum bonus of $735,000. Last year he got a bonus of $198,150.

So why does SDSU place such a dangerous, destructive sport at the center of its expansion plans and fundraising goals? Will President de la Torre drive a stake through this program, and maybe redirect these funds towards faculty salaries and research?

Another question: it’s no secret that the Chancellor’s Office wants the CSU to go in one direction, but SDSU wants to go another. SDSU wants to reach the “top 50” research schools. The Chancellor’s Office has other ideas. They want to focus on teaching, and they want to homogenize the individual identities of each CSU campus.  Several years ago, the previous Provost, Nancy Marlin, put on a giant dog-and-pony show for a visiting trustee who shot down our ambitions with a cutting “Nancy, you’re talking like you are a UC. You’re not.” Things haven’t changed very much in the interim. Will President de la Torre support SDSU’s research ambitions? Or will she bend more to the Chancellor’s Office view of the CSU as franchises dedicated exclusively to teaching? How will she navigate the competing demands of the Chancellor’s Office and San Diego State University?

Finally, while this problem may seem more like inside baseball, it has the potential to seriously impact the quality of education at SDSU: the abysmal relations between faculty and administration. At the moment, the Provost is undergoing an early review. So is the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. About five other deans are leaving, some voluntarily, some not. Many faculty are unhappy with their administrators; many administrators find SDSU ungovernable. What will President de la Torre do to restore trust between those professors and administrators? How does she feel about shared governance, which usually means, we do the sharing, and they do the governing?

For all these questions, we will see. Right now, all faculty can do is look forward with a little worry and a lot of excitement.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism.