By Peter C. Herman
We’ve had a new president for a few months now, and so how do things look? On the one hand, it seems that SDSU has never been better. SDSU received more than 93,000 applications this year, and the campus regularly hosts important speakers who attract crowds from both inside and outside the university, such as Daniel Ellsberg. Walk on the campus, and you’ll see the place is buzzing with energy.
But there are a few storm clouds.
First, the library. The previous library dean and the now-departed provost came up with a plan to increase the library’s funding, which had fallen woefully behind. Every year, the base funding would go up by $100,000, supplemented by $300,000 to $400,000 in “one-time” funding. This year, with a new provost, a new president, and no library dean (meaning, no one to advocate for the library), the base funding went up, but the one-time funding disappeared.
The result is a dismal acquisitions budget, $100,000 less than last year. SDSU is supposed to be a research university, and yet, CSU Northridge’s book budget is $150,000 higher than ours. The same applies to San Francisco State University’s budget. So at the same time that SDSU loudly proclaims its ambition to join the “top fifty” public research universities, the library—where faculty and students go to do their research—finds its budget going backwards. A research university needs a research library, and that is not happening.
Second, tenure-track hiring has slowed to a trickle. Even though SDSU’s strategic plan announced the university’s intention to “increase tenured/tenure-track faculty and staff levels to meet critical and strategic needs,” and even though the CSU recognizes the connection between secure faculty and student success, tenure-track hiring has slowed. This year, the College of Arts and Letters (the largest at SDSU) is hiring only five assistant professors.
To give a sense of just how much SDSU relies on part-time labor, let me use my department, English and Comparative Literature. This semester, we offer approximately 60 classes. But of that number, adjuncts teach 39 classes, more than fifty percent.
That’s an outrage, although SDSU is far from alone in that. In addition to the ethical problem of relying on cheap labor to do most of the teaching, if SDSU wants to be a “top fifty” research university, then who exactly is going to do the research if we are not hiring tenure-track professors? SDSU says it wants the honor and glory of belonging to the top tier of universities. Yet at the same time, the library’s budget gets slashed, and tenure-track hiring is kept to a minimum.
Which leads to the question: where is President Adela de la Torre in this? Does the reliance on contingent faculty and starving the library fit with her vision for the university? Back in 1993, then-Professor de la Torre published an op ed in the Los Angeles Times, included in her 2002 book, Moving from the Margins: A Chicana Voice on Public Policy, arguing for “[coordinating] faculty, departments and campuses across the systems and begin to ask some questions that may at first seem blasphemous. Does UC really need four Ph.D. programs in sociology (in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis and Santa Barbara)?”
Faculty did not have the opportunity to ask our future president any questions before she was hired, so we do not know if President de la Torre still holds these views. But given the state of the library’s budget and tenure-track hiring, one has to wonder if she is applying this stringent vision to SDSU. Is President de la Torre thinking, “Do we really need more tenure-track hires when there’s an army of much cheaper adjuncts waiting to be hired?” Or, “Given the presence of many other libraries in San Diego and Los Angeles, does our library really need a substantial budget?”
Where does SDSU’s money go? Administration continues to expand. The position of Associate Vice President for Faculty Advancement, originally occupied by a single person, has for some reason metastasized into three, each with a salary north of $175, 000. And in the wake of the university’s decision to retain the Aztec mascot, the notion of a “healing garden” has been revived. Originally priced at over $1 million, the 2018 cost estimate is $1.5-2 million. While the garden’s funding would come from multiple sources, my sources tell me that the President’s Office has committed approximately $200,000. So, administrators and healing gardens, yes; the library and tenure-track hiring, not so much.
Finally, there’s the question of SDSU and Mission Valley. Legally, the university cannot openly support SDSU West, the initiative that will transform the present stadium’s Mission Valley site into a mixed use extension of the university, centered around a sports stadium. Even so, there’s no doubt that SDSU’s plan is SDSU West’s plan, and there are good reasons for skepticism.
The project will cost at least $550 million (a little less than half goes for the new stadium), and where will the money come from? It’s a mystery. University officials swear that student fees will not pay for this project, but the Voice of San Diego reports reports that the university “has declined to release documents that show its exact assessment of the project’s financials.” That should raise suspicions.
Especially since a key backer of SDSU West is Jack McGrory, the same man who gave us the Chargers ticket guarantee and San Diego’s $2 billion pension debacle. While I know that past performance is no guarantee of future returns, the fact that McGrory is one of SDSU West’s chief backers should be a giant red flag screaming: Warning! Warning! Major Deficits Ahead!
And of course, there’s football itself, which is dying, and for good reason. The sport, as everyone knows, has serious issues with domestic violence, and it leaves many players suffering from catastrophic brain damage. Consequently, the number of people watching the Superbowl continues to drop, and fewer and fewer high school students play football. So making football the center of SDSU’s plans for Mission Valley is just not a good idea, morally or fiscally.
So all told, I’d give the university a “B,” with a warning. There’s so much great stuff going on, and that’s wonderful. But the lack of support for the library, the anemic hiring, and the uncritical embrace of a project whose finances are opaque and runs a significant risk of stupendous bills, collectively show that while SDSU appears on the surface to be thriving, underneath, the foundations are starting to weaken.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.
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