Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of higher education is bleak, and San Diego State University is no exception. The campus lost $42 million in revenue last semester, and the number is expected to be even higher this coming fiscal year. State revenues have cratered along with the economy, and the expectation is that the state university system’s budget will be slashed.
Adding to our woes, it’s likely that many students will not be returning, and for good reasons. Most students really don’t like online classes, and they certainly don’t want to pay full tuition plus campus fees if everything remains online. Yet without a vaccine, returning to face-to-face to classes puts everyone—faculty, staff, students, and, yes even administrators—in danger. And a vaccine is a long, long way off.
After the CSU Board of Trustees had approved the $310 million plan for the Mission Valley stadium, I asked La Monica Everett-Haynes, SDSU’s chief communications officer, if there were any plans to suspend the project, given the economic and public health uncertainties. She responded that “both SDSU and the CSU will continue to assess the ongoing impacts of current events and make adjustments to the schedule and planning as needed.”
Given that SDSU will not have budget certainty until September or October, and the expectation that both state funding and tuition revenues would plummet, I assumed reasonable minds would agree to a pause. Now is not the time for such a project.
But I was wrong.
On April 28, SDSU dumped on the City Council a 600-page draft contract, plus numerous attachments, and demanded that the city sign off on the agreement in time for the May 19 council meeting. The city has to determine by May 5 if the contract is satisfactory, which is not a lot of time to work through the “2,065 changes, ranging from minor adjustments in wording to more substantial sub-section deletions and additions.”
Let’s review the situation: SDSU has just lost $42 million and expects to lose even more; it’s almost certain that the state budget and tuition dollars will be far less than expected. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive unemployment and economists expect a recession, if not a depression. Until there’s a vaccine—and there will not be a vaccine for quite some time—social distancing will be the order of the day, and gatherings of over 10 people forbidden.
And yet, SDSU thinks that now is a good time to go hundreds of millions of dollars into debt to pay for a new football stadium.
The key word here is “debt.” The assumption is that the bonds would be paid off using revenue generated by leases and ticket sales. This means the development, the buildings, and who occupies the buildings, will be devoted to servicing the debt. Classrooms don’t help with that.
Even though SDSU sold Mission Valley West as primarily an educational venture, as a way of accommodating an expected influx of 15,000 students, there is nothing in the contract that obligates SDSU to use any part of SDSU West for anything other than commercial purposes. Nor does the contract define what constitutes “educational use.” A football stadium can, and probably will, be considered “educational.”
Even worse, Mara Elliott, the City Attorney, in her Jan. 22 report, proposed to the City Council that the contract include some provisions ensuring “that the project includes core academic and research elements supporting CSU’s mission and is not predominantly a private development project.”
SDSU vociferously opposed this provision. In the end, so did the council.
Think about this for a second: the university—supposedly, an institution whose primary purpose is education— rejected any clause obligating them to use Mission Valley for academic purposes. The mind boggles!
But the reason is not hard to find: private development generates revenue. A drugstore generates revenue. Renting office space to law or tech firms generates revenue. A classroom does not generate revenue, and when you have hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to pay off, you have to think: what’s going to maximize revenue?
No wonder SDSU didn’t want any provisions that would restrict any part of Mission Valley to “educational uses.”
SDSU’s Mission Valley project needs to be put on hold until the economy picks up and the coronavirus pandemic eases. There’s no reason to rush into this project, as SDSU wants. It makes no sense to rack up that much debt when the United States is facing a major economic downturn and when it is highly unlikely that 25,000 people will be allowed to gather together for a football game anytime soon.
But most of all, we need concrete assurances that SDSU Mission Valley will focus on education, not private development. That’s what SDSU promised. We should hold them to that promise.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.