Banner for the inauguration of Adela de la Torre
A banner on the San Diego State University campus in April. courtesy SDSU

The first sign of real trouble was the decision (by precisely who remains unclear) to welcome President Adela de la Torre with a lavish inauguration. For days beforehand, the campus was festooned with huge banners featuring the new president’s visage.

More than one person wondered if we had been magically transported to North Korea.

This exercise in self-congratulation cost $162,000. As an editorial in The Daily Aztec reported, the inauguration webpage, in addition to reproducing all the congratulatory letters, claimed that the festivities were paid for by Associated Students, Aztec Shops, the SDSU Research Foundation, and the Campanile Foundation. So, “No state funds, student fees, or tuition dollars were used.”

But this is nonsense, as the editorial went on to note: “Aztec Shops gets much of its funding from sales to students at the SDSU Bookstore or the Aztec Market, while Associated Students gets a significant chunk of its revenue from student fees.” So yes, student money paid for this event. And the foundations get their capital from fees levied on grants brought in by faculty, so professors helped pay for it also.

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Adding insult to injury, the event was sparsely attended. Even though the faculty were inundated with emails “suggesting” that we hold an “informal” day off so students could attend, most declined to cancel, and most students went to class.

Still, the event created a lingering worry: how fiscally responsible is the new president?

Now we know, and the answer is not encouraging.

Unlike the inauguration, the budget recommended by the president’s Budget Advisory Committee, and approved by de la Torre, most definitely distributes state funds and tuition dollars, not private donations. But de la Torre seems to have brought with her the extravagant spending habits of her previous employer, the University of California, Davis. (After a video of a policeman spraying seated students with pepper went viral, the university paid $175,000 for consultants to scrub its negative search results; it didn’t work.)

For example, de la Torre approved hiring a “Presidential Speechwriter/Presidential Communications Director” at a cost of $210,000. Previous presidents chose their speechwriters from within SDSU, and they were nowhere near this expensive.

Of course, every new president must have a new strategic plan, even though these plans all say the same thing (e.g., “we will be a world-class university that focuses on diversity, equity, inclusion, student achievement, shared governance, the border, and research,” etc. etc. etc.).  I’ve lived through three of them. But never before did we hire consultants. The cost this time: $300,000.

Then there is the “healing garden.” I do not know precisely what a “healing garden” is, but I know it will cost $250,000. It will also be situated across from the Communication Building’s dumpsters. The “Support the Aztec Identity Governing Authority,” whose purpose is equally mysterious, gets $200,000.

Lesser expenditures also raise eyebrows: $50,000 for de la Torre’s and her staff’s relocation needs; $25,000 for a “campus photography initiative;” and the Fowler Athletic Center needs new tables and chairs: $74,550.

Looking at the list of approved budget requests, it’s hard to not to think of the administration as kids set free in a candy store, grabbing what they want to fund their favorite projects.

What’s not a priority? Supporting faculty research, for one. There’s over a million dollars in diversity initiatives and spending requests, but even though SDSU has ambitions to become a major research university, we still have high teaching loads, and the library remains woefully underfunded. (Or maybe that ambition has been shelved. De la Torre hasn’t said much about that lately, nor did the new provost, Salvador Hector Ochoa, when he gave his presentation.)

SDSU library bathroom missing a sink
SDSU library bathroom missing a sink

Also, unbelievably, the president approved a budget that spends a quarter million dollars for a garden while the library has endured two raw sewage spills (we all know what that really means) in the past few months, and two bathrooms that have had to be permanently closed.

The library asked for a plumbing upgrade this summer. They were denied.

What makes this spending even more worrisome is that there are serious financial storm clouds on the horizon.

According to the minutes of the May 16 meeting of the president’s Budget Advisory Committee, “our non-resident enrollment is down. The number of applications is higher but intent to enroll is lower.” In the next meeting’s minutes (May 23), we learn the gravity of the situation: “Non-resident students is 14% of total enrollment but non-resident tuition represents 40% of total tuition revenue.”

How serious is this? Serious enough that the College of Extended Studies’ American Language Institute (which teaches ESL) suddenly laid off 12 full-time instructors, a program director and an assistant program director. Many had worked at SDSU for over twenty years. None had any warning, some were hired back as hourly workers at a lower salary and without benefits.

In other words, they were treated abysmally. And yet, in her latest “fireside charla” podcast, President de la Torre talks about “compassionate leadership” at SDSU. Not exactly what happened here.

But this catastrophe will also affect the rest of SDSU: the tuition dollars that make up a significant proportion of our budget have just disappeared. And yet, de la Torre thinks that now is the time to build an expensive garden, hire a speechwriter, and bring on board consultants to do what we did ourselves several times before.

This is not prudent budgeting, and it’s not prudent politics. Gov. Gavin Newsom just approved a significant increase in CSU funding, but the next time around, will he point to the garden and the speechwriter, and ask, “Is this what you are spending the state’s money on? If you have a quarter million dollars for a ‘healing garden’ and two hundred grand for a speechwriter, then maybe you don’t need additional funding.”

“Maybe you should spend your money more wisely.”

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.