Hard times for Chico State?

A calamitous budget cut of unknown size is scheduled to hit the state university system next autumn, which in turn has brought legislative calls for a 50 percent fee (tuition) hike worth $357 per student per semester. Amber Johnsen, the Chico State student body president, is on record as saying such an increase would surely drive away some potential students but that a lesser increase along with student input on how the bucks would be spent might be OK.

Yes, a lot of students probably will bypass Chico State next autumn, but not because of a tuition bump. They will stay away just like they did in the early 1990s recession because, unlike the big-city commuter campuses, Chico State is an expensive in-residence school that parents in the Bay Area and L.A. can’t afford in hard times. I remember Chico landlords screaming bloody murder over all the empty apartments, with some even accusing Chico State of causing the whole mess by killing Pioneer Week.

If Johnsen and her fellow state university student body presidents become strongly assertive, they might shape any fee increase to their liking. After all, Gov. Gray Davis has long championed low student fees, and he’s up for re-election next autumn. However, a low fee increase will only mean something else will have to give, meaning more part-time and perhaps even non-tenured, full-time faculty layoffs. Fewer faculty in turn means fewer and more crowded classes.

When Johnsen mentions input on how fee increase money is spent, she must mean zilch for the massive new software management system for administrative tasks (called CMS) that the chancellor put in unstoppable forward motion on all CSU campuses this year. A so-called unfunded mandate, it squeezed $2.24 million out of Chico State’s tight 2001-02 instructional budget and will take the same or more out of whatever starvation budget comes down the line for next year. That much money would fund close to 50 full-time faculty positions. The CMS bleeding will go on for another four years, with a projected total of $15 million for Chico State—if there’s no cost overrun, which is never the case on any state project.

Lean times in the state and thus public higher education are periodic, but CMS brings a new factor to the budget equation because it represents internal belt tightening after campus budgets are set. The universities have not fulfilled promises made in the past to bring an end to expensive layered administration and faculty sinecures that hurt efficiency and productivity.

There’s an old saying that when the public higher-education ship hits the budget iceberg, the captain, his officers, and the tenured crew are first into the lifeboats, while the passengers fend for themselves. Will CMS costs force changes in the incredible inertia of the university culture? Time will tell.