Chico State chief has work cut out in final year before retirement
Before Paul Zingg became president of a notorious party school, friends and colleagues urged him not to take the job.
“Quite frankly, I was told my career would be over if I came here. It was like, ‘You have to be out of your mind. It’s a dead-end job; you’ll kill yourself there,’” Zingg recalled during an interview in his office at Chico State’s Kendall Hall, the historic red-brick building where he’s led the university since 2004. “But I kind of like those challenges.”
Plenty has changed for the better during Zingg’s tenure as president, he says. The party scene, for instance, has chilled out significantly.
But all isn’t well on campus, and Zingg’s time at the helm is short. In light of a series of serious health complications, he’s retiring next spring. And upon reflecting on his tenure’s accomplishments and outlining what he hopes to see from his successor, Zingg recognizes that he isn’t retired yet—he still has a job to do. In fact, dissatisfied Chico State employees are maintaining pressure on administration and calling specifically on Zingg to address their concerns before he retires.
In June, Zingg returned to Kendall Hall after a lengthy medical leave during which he underwent heart bypass surgery, was rehospitalized six weeks later due to a staph infection, then returned again to remove two kidney stones—likely a consequence of his various medications. It was an arduous six months for his family, including his wife and two step-daughters. And while Zingg didn’t get specific, he mentioned “ongoing health issues” and that he will take blood-pressure medication for the rest of his life.
So even while he’s thrilled by the energy of 4,800 new students on campus this fall, the 70-year-old concedes that the weight of responsibility that comes with running “a city of 20,000 people”—and making decisions that invariably are unpopular with some campus factions—has taken its toll over the years. He believes the stress contributed to his hospitalization. He has no reservations about retirement.
In the meantime, Chico State employees have concerns they want him to address. That was apparent on Aug. 27 during a forum hosted by Chico State’s Academic Senate in which several hundred staff, faculty and administrators decried low wages, burdensome workloads, bullying and a lack of transparency from management.
“There’s a feeling among staff and faculty that the campus culture in general is not good,” said Jessica Verardi, president of the Chico chapter of the CSU Employees’ Union, during a recent phone interview. On Friday (Sept. 18), the union hosted a rally attended by 175 people on campus that marched through Kendall Hall, intending to keep pressure on as the university prepares to transition between presidents.
“We want to make sure the administration is still paying attention, not letting this go by the wayside in this last year before President Zingg retires,” Verardi said. Administration hasn’t been responsive to the employees “in a way that shows things are getting better. They tell us, ‘Look at what we did.’”
For instance, Zingg touts his recently unveiled multiphase equity plan, intended to boost compensation for staff and faculty over several years, but Verardi says only about 10 percent of staff have gotten raises thus far.
“When we hear that salaries are improving, but it’s such a small group of people getting increases—while management and administration continue to get increases every year—it’s very frustrating for staff,” she said.
Zingg says the equity plan “is the most generous and comprehensive in the entire CSU system” and hopes the university’s next president will continue to invest in employees. But that will be out of his hands, he admits.
“My job this year is to try to set the table so that whoever the new president is can take this institution forward,” Zingg said. “That’s difficult. I can’t tell the next person what to do. But I can set the table in a way that will make them want to continue certain things.”
For example, Zingg hopes the next president recognizes the importance of diversity in the campus community, from students and administration to professors and groundskeepers. During his tenure, student diversity has risen from 18 percent nonwhite students in 2004 to 40 percent today, Zingg said. Far less progress has been made in attracting ethnically and racially diverse instructors, he acknowledges, partly due to intense competition for, say, a black history professor.
“Students expect to see a commitment to diversity reflected in the faculty and staff,” he said. “It’s a ‘walking the talk’ challenge.”
Managing enrollment is another difficult arena, he said. The trend throughout the 23-campus CSU system is growth, but that’s not always possible in a community already impacted by a surge of students.
“But we have to be very conscious about growth and what it means to our community,” Zingg said. “We’re not L.A. State; they could grow 10,000 students and nobody would notice. We grow by 200 students and the community notices the parking, the congestion, more crowds, more student behavior issues.”
Speaking of student behavior, Zingg shares the widely held observation that Chico isn’t as wild as it was in years or decades past, though there are lingering traces of the unsavory reputation that’s haunted Chico State since Playboy ranked it the No. 1 party school in 1987.
This Labor Day, for instance, was a “nonevent” compared with the booze-fueled floats that used to draw 20,000 people to the Sacramento River, he said. And in spring, César Chávez Day was much tamer, as many students chose to honor the holiday through community service “rather than putting on a fake mustache and sombrero and drinking tequila,” Zingg said.
Turning the party culture around started with the students themselves, Zingg said, as with every aspect of the university.
“The reason we’re all here is students,” he said. “The mission we have as a campus fundamentally begins with student success, student support and student learning. I think sometimes folks are distracted from that.”