Esteban’s power problems

Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

Enterprise-Record Editor David Little noted in his column of Sunday, March 11, that Chico State University—read: President Manuel Esteban—wants to “force” more students to take classes on Fridays. “Now, they can easily schedule classes Monday through Thursday and have a three-day weekend every week,” Little wrote.

If the president really wants to force students into Friday classes, he first would need to force what I call Easy Street faculty to offer classes on Friday, which is very unlikely because, unlike a private-sector CEO, he dare not muscle the troops. I note that the Journalism Department, my old home, has for a long time scheduled no classes or office hours on Friday, thus setting up a continuous string of three-day weekends. How many others are doing the same thing?

On display here is a strange paradox: The state administrative code gives virtually all the power on campus to the university president, who is afraid to use it for any controversial decision because he might well end up losing it. How so? Well, the short answer is that state university presidents in California operate not through the exercise of raw power but by building consensus. Power plays with the faculty result in vicious political firefights that usually end with the president losing his effectiveness, his job, or both. Thus if a president can’t build consensus for a certain action or policy, he leaves it alone, meaning he leaves the status quo undisturbed.

Power enjoyed its place in days of yore. President Glenn Kendall, who retired in 1966, was the last Chico State president to run the school by authority. He delegated no power to the Faculty Council. Robert Hill, his successor, reversed that course by elevating the council to Faculty Senate status and largely delegating his power to it. He rubber stamped most senate decisions, signaling the need for compromise well in advance if he wanted to reshape some policy or action. It’s that way today.

The political stakes change in using a heavy hand with students. When President Robin Wilson killed Pioneer Week, it represented the only big presidential power play at Chico State in 35 years, but Wilson made sure he had plenty of backing on campus and in the Chancellor’s Office—if not the business community—before he acted.

Today Esteban faces a delicate situation with the Wildcat Activity Center. He had best be careful, even with pushing a scaled-down version of the project that went down March 8 in a lopsided advisory vote. Any heavy-handedness would only reinforce the community concept of the university as big, cold, aloof and monolithic, caring little about what effect its actions have beyond the campus.

Also, bad economic times will hurt enrollment and student finances next autumn. Either voted or imposed WAC fees could well bring not just a lawsuit by fitness club owners, but also a class action lawsuit by today’s sophomores and juniors forced to pay for a facility from which they receive no benefit.

Hard times might help get Friday classes, but the president should bottle the WAC up forever in committee.