Love Library
Malcolm Love Library at San Diego State University which has suffered from deferred maintenance. Image via Wikipedia Commons

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote an opinion piece arguing that SDSU’s tuition was a bargain, and that was a real problem. Tuition did not rise when state funding plummeted and costs went up accordingly.  

Something had to give, and that was educational quality. Library funding went down, class sizes went up, and so did the use of adjunct professors.  

It took almost a decade, but the California State University Board of Trustees finally got the message, mainly because the situation is getting desperate. In July 2022, the Chancellor’s “workgroup” on the CSU’s finances concluded that the system faces a nearly $1.5 billion shortfall between costs and revenues.

In fact, the gulf is exponentially wider, because they deliberately left out “the estimated $5.8 billion of critical capital renewal backlog.” Put bluntly, the gap “between revenues and costs cannot be closed with existing revenue trends.”

Drastic action is needed, and the “workgroup” offers a number of solutions. First, tuition must go up, and not coincidentally, “the main reason the University of California can meet operating budget needs with the compact, but CSU cannot, is because the UC is able to draw on significantly more tuition revenue.” 

In addition, the CSU should look at eliminating “programs with exceedingly small average class sizes” because they “are inherently more expensive to offer.” And the CSU should offer more courses “online or through hybrid instruction” (this despite the mounting evidence that online education has been a disaster for both K-12 and higher ed).

But this is a report written by administrators and consultants (the “workgroup” included zero faculty) for administrators and consultants; consequently, the report ignores administrative bloat.

It takes a massive amount of chutzpah to claim that costs exceed revenues while pouring money into administrative laps. Last year, the Board of Trustees announced a raft of presidential salary increases. SDSU President Adela de la Torre led the pack with a whopping 17% raise that resulted in a salary of $531,148, plus housing.

The board’s generosity also extended to administrators further down the ladder: a 7% raise across the board. Faculty, on the other hand, saw their 4% raise cut to 3%; the board, of course, was silent.

The largesse doled out to the presidents, however, is part of the ongoing growth in administration in the CSU.  Between 2016-2021, the number of top-level administrators rose from 645 to 727 (the numbers are from Transparent California), a 12% increase in deans and vice-presidents, all making six-figure salaries. In 2016, SDSU’s administration consisted of approximately 146 positions; by 2021, that number went up to about 171, a 17% increase.

But while the number and salaries of administrators goes up, fulltime faculty numbers go down. On April 27, the university senate hosted a meeting on SDSU’s progress toward achieving “Doctoral/Very High Research Activity” or “R1” status, the highest possible rank among research universities. Dr. Glen Colby from the American Association of University Professors gave a presentation on how SDSU stacked up when it came to the “tenure density” mix.

The news was not good. Starting in 2012, the percentage of part-time faculty rose while the percentage of tenured faculty plummeted. The percentage of tenure-track faculty, after a brief uptick under President Elliot Hirshman, began to decline in 2018, the year de la Torre arrived.

And all the while, the number of administrators keeps metastasizing. We used to have a single Provost. Now we have a Provost and a Vice Provost.  Shortly after de la Torre started, a new office opened up: Strategic Communications and Public Affairs (affectionately known as “Stratcomm”), which now houses 25 employees with such titles as “Senior Director of Brand Marketing and Digital Media” and “Senior Director of Digital Communications & Analytics.”

In 2016, we had a single Director of Instructional Technology Service. Now we have an “Office of the Vice President of Information Technology,” created in 2022, that hosts five administrators. And each new administrative office requires support staff, office space, and computers.

And it’s not just the ever-rising numbers of administrators with their increasingly elaborate titles. I cannot speak to the situation at other CSU campuses, but at SDSU, every time we turn around, there’s yet another consultant hired, and the numbers start to add up.

Here are just several examples:

  • Last year, the administration retained a consultant at a cost of $175,000 to update SDSU’s “brand strategy” and to introduce the “new secondary colors,” charcoal, white and teal.
  • To help with the university’s quest to reach R1 status, SDSU employed three consulting groups. First, the SmithGroup to examine at SDSU’s use of space. Cost: $350,000. This, apparently, was a bargain, becasue the president’s budget committee originally allocated $400,000.
  • Second, to assess “our research infrastructure,” the administration turned to Maximus Higher Education Practice at a cost of $116,000.
  • Finally, they brought in a third consulting group, NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers) to assess the finances of going to R1 at a cost of $79,000.

SDSU needs a new provost and a new dean for the College of Arts and Letters. Each search, however, requires a head-hunting firm, and while I do not have the numbers, I’m sure they do not come cheap.

There seems to be no end and no limit to the appetite for hiring consultants. And yet, the university charges students for basic administrative functions. Applying for a hardship withdrawal after the semester ends, for example, costs $20.

What is the administration not spending money on? Last May, I asked our librarian to purchase a book. The response: they can’t do it because “the current fiscal year’s budget has been spent and we won’t receive additional funds until later this summer.”

How can a university that prides itself on research so underfund the library that acquisitions runs out of money well before the end of fiscal year? Maximus, it seems, has its work cut out for it.

The administration is also not spending money on faculty lines. At the last University Senate meeting, de la Torre committed to hiring 25 new professors. That sounds like a lot, but SDSU has a total of 55 academic departments, so at best, less than half the university gets a single assistant professor.

None of which is to say that Chancellor’s Office “workgroup” is wrong: the CSU system is desperately underfunded, and the nearly $6 billion backlog in deferred maintenance needs to be addressed before something catastrophic happens (like the library collapsing on our head).

But you can’t cry poverty and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants.

You can’t go to the legislature and say, we must raise tuition, after doling out huge raises to the presidents and creating more and more administrative positions with six-figure salaries.

You can’t claim that the current funding model “is not adequate for current circumstances” after scooping out thirty million dollars from the Academic Affairs budget to subsidize the Mission Valley project.

So yes, we need to raise tuition, but we also need a wholesale reordering of priorities. We need to scale back administration, stop hiring consultants, shrink the number of deans and vice presidents, and redirect those funds to prioritize the academic mission.

That means money for faculty lines, raising faculty and staff salaries, and adequately funding the library, not for more administrators or building a soccer stadium. In other words, the money needs to go to education, which is supposed to be SDSU’s main purpose.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published books on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and essays in Salon, Newsweek, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego. His next book will be “Early Modern Others: Resisting Bias in Renaissance Literature” (Routledge).