The Malcolm A. Love Library at San Diego State University has significant maintenance issues. Photo by Chris Stone

By Peter C. Herman

San Diego State University President Adela de la Torre along with several vice presidents gave a presentation on Oct. 29 about the 2020-2021 budget, and the picture is decidedly sobering.

The relatively good news is that SDSU is doing better than many other colleges and universities. While local enrollment is up, international enrollment (which accounts for a significant portion the budget) is down. So far, at least, no talk of furloughs.

But the bad news is that the state appropriation has dropped by $32 million; tuition revenue is down by $13 million; and a combination of COVID-19 related revenue losses and unfunded mandatory cost increases leaves us a further $22 million in the hole.

In total, SDSU faces a $67 million budget shortfall, and de la Torre says that we can expect further budget reductions for the next three years.

Academic Affairs, which includes all the teaching and research parts of the university as well as the library, took at $28.3 million cut, with the College of Arts and Letters losing nearly $5 million.

There’s no doubt that cuts of this magnitude will affect how well we teach our students and how much research faculty can do, with the library partly closed and shedding major resources, such as the Nexis/Uni academic research database, because of lack of funding.

But the administration left a crucial fact out of their presentation. On Aug. 5, de la Torre sent out a “budget mitigation” email stating that to speed up “the timeline of revenue generation from public private partnerships in Mission Valley,” they took $30 million “from one-time campus reserves.” In a statement provided to me, SDSU reiterated that “The $30 million does not come from the operating budget, and the revenue generated through the projects will pay back the investment, plus it will generate surplus for operations. This would not be possible through other uses of these one-time non-operating dollars.”

However, the $30 million could have been used to cushion the budget cuts. The $67 million shortfall could have been reduced by half. The entire cut to the Academic Affairs budget could have been avoided with $1.7 million to spare. We could have used these funds for purposes that directly benefited faculty, students, and staff. So why did they do this? Why did they scoop out $30 million from reserves in the face of a truly serious budget shortfall?

The administration’s attempts to explain themselves at the town hall fell considerably short.

Crystal Little, interim associate vice president for financial operations, claimed that in previous years, the “carry forward balances” (the funds left over from the previous year’s budget cycle) were over $30 million, so we would not miss this money. But previous years, of course, did not have a budget deficit of $67 million. So that makes no sense.

Then, senior vice-president Tom McCarron claimed that $30 million “is not a net reduction,” because we would be repaid from “ground lease revenue.” But McCarron admitted in a presentation to SDSU’s Corky McMillin Center for Real Estate on Sept. 15 that the Mission Valley project is structured so that “revenue won’t be coming in for several years.” Whatever the future holds, given the size of the budget reduction, we need the money now.

It gets worse. Much worse.

In their budget request last December, the Deferred Maintenance Advisory Committee revealed that SDSU has over “$1 billion in deferred maintenance and campus renewal needs.” That is not a typo: One Billion Dollars.

As every homeowner knows, not taking care of basic maintenance only leads to greater costs down the line, which is exactly what happened last year with the Professional Studies and Fine Arts building. The roof collapsed, and fumes from the repair led to a months-long evacuation and serious legal jeopardy. Again, according to the Deferred Maintenance Advisory Committee: “The regulatory environment surrounding PSFA on campus led the APCD [Air Pollution Control District] to propose an extremely large fine which is currently under negotiation with the assistance of outside legal counsel.” In other words, the violations were so egregious that the district imposed a huge fine, which SDSU, with the help of expensive outside lawyers, is contesting.

When asked for details, SDSU gave this statement: “Discussions with the Air Pollution Control District are ongoing and, therefore, information cannot be shared at this stage.”

The Deferred Maintenance Advisory Committee further warns that the “issues experienced recently with the PSFA project will become more likely and frequent.” But because funding is so limited, the goal is not to stop but only to “reduce the number and impact of catastrophic failures in the facility infrastructure.” Note that they do not say they want to eliminate catastrophic failures, just keep their number to a minimum.

Nor is the PSFA debacle an isolated incident. In a separate budget request, the Department of Environmental Health & Safety revealed that SDSU “has received several Notices of Violation from a number of regulatory agencies.” In fact, the fines have “escalated and violations now include the potential for personal liability.” So SDSU is facing serious legal and financial trouble.

While many of the systems at risk are invisible (until they fail), a casual glance at SDSU’s infrastructure shows just how poorly it has been maintained. The exterior to the library is literally crumbling. The dome leaks when it rains, and the Life Science complex is in desperate need of repair, if not complete replacement. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the president authorized spending a quarter million dollars on the construction of a “healing garden” because it seems we will need it when the next roof collapses.

Obviously, de la Torre is not responsible for years of neglect. But she is responsible for deciding to privilege two major building projects — the Mission Valley and Imperial Valley expansions — while doing the bare minimum to address the billion-dollar backlog on deferred maintenance, a backlog that led to serious code violations and a major fine. The president’s lack of urgency is nearly inexplicable.

Nearly, but not entirely.

At the town hall, I asked how the administration can justify shifting $30 million to the Mission Valley project when there’s over a billion dollars in deferred maintenance. President de la Torre then revealed the reason for her decision.

Fixing the main campus, it seems, is just not that important: “When we look at future growth,” de la Torre said, “The future growth will really be occurring in the innovation districts, both in the Imperial Valley, as well as Mission Valley.”

Mission Valley, and apparently also, the Imperial Valley Campus, a small outpost in Calexico that offers only twelve majors and serves about 1,000 students, take precedence over a campus that offers over 140 majors and serves over 30,000 students. So $30 million gets shifted to support the creation of “innovation districts” elsewhere. The main campus represents the past; Mission Valley and the Imperial Valley Campus, the bold, brave future.

Whatever the merits of the Mission Valley and Imperial Valley projects, it is unconscionable to divert funds away from SDSU’s primary campus when the needs are so great and state funding is plummeting. SDSU, and the many people this university serves, deserve better.

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).