‘I’m an eternal optimist’

Chico State’s president shares his views in an issue-laden Q&A

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Paul Zingg prefers to look on the bright side of life. Ask him about challenges he faces as president of Chico State University, and he’ll highlight progress and opportunities.

He has the hallmark traits of a historian-administrator: a love of storytelling, an eye for details and a sense of the big picture that goes beyond immediacies.

For more than an hour earlier this month, Zingg sat down with CN&R’s editor and associate editor. This was before U.S. News & World Report ranked Chico State fourth among public “master’s universities” in the West (that is, schools that offer master’s degrees but few if any doctorates). Among the 63 public and private master’s universities on the list, Chico State is 31st.

Even without the accolade, Zingg expressed pride about an array of initiatives, from diversity and sustainability to development and measured growth. He also answered questions about some recent scandals at his university and in the CSU system.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the number of new faces he expects among the faculty in the next five to seven years. Oh, and we couldn’t resist a quick chat about athletics with the sports fan and author.

Two and a half years into your tenure, what is the state of Chico State?

I think in general we’re moving toward a more focused and connected sense of what we’re trying to achieve. In particular, strengthening the university as a place of public purpose and service, particularly with respect to the North State. And, secondly, being more intentional in terms of our values. And the value-added experience that we’re trying to achieve here certainly for students, but for faculty and staff as well.

We’ve got lots of individual elements, for example enrollments. We will meet our enrollment target this year, as we did last year. This is in contrast to about seven of the other campuses in the system that are actually having their budgets reduced because they did not meet their enrollment targets. We will probably exceed our target this year, in fact, with a significantly more diverse student body, as was the case last year. For example, our incoming African-American freshmen when I got here was 37; this year it’s 101, and that’s reflected in other socio-ethnic and economic diversity as well.

In general, I’m optimistic. And some of our investments we’ve made are paying off. In addition to the diversity commitment, advancement—fundraising. In 2005-06 we will close the books with about $8.2 million raised, which exceeds by almost 30 percent the previous best year in the university’s history. We’re demonstrating that you need to spend a few dollars to make a few dollars. But we’re spending about 14 cents to make a dollar—and that’s pretty good. (For more about fundraising, see page 16.)

In terms of growth, Chico State is a lot like Chico. The city has the Greenline, and the university has physical boundaries. How are you addressing expansion in these confines?

Well, we’re not expanding the physical boundaries of the campus whatsoever. The expansion that we will realize, and this is really reflected in our master plan, one of the key principals in that master plan is to strongly respect the sense of place and the sense of relationship between the university and the city. So the expansion that we will achieve primarily in terms of enrollment growth will be limited in terms of on-campus.

We’re looking at about a 1.2 percent annual enrollment growth over the next 15 years. A lot of that growth, we anticipate, will be off campus. It will be through educational operations in the Redding area. We anticipate expanding operations in the Yuba City area. We anticipate building online enrollments.

As properties become available in the area near the railroad tracks as you head west on First Street, we will try to acquire those properties. But we’re not going to go in there and try to slap down some eminent-domain border and gobble them up. As they become available, we will try to acquire them … which will eventually translate into student housing. But beyond that there are no [plans for] expansion of the university’s boundaries.

You’ve talked about growing upward, as opposed to outward.

We’re going to be doing some new housing and dining construction in the area of Whitney Hall, which is the nine-story student residence on campus. The area outside of Whitney, there’s a large, open, concrete space. We’re going to be building some additional student housing and residences in there. And they will be most likely on a two-, three-, four-story platform, creating almost a little residential village around Whitney, with courtyards, outdoor dining and meeting space.

The same thing is true with the replacement of Taylor Hall, which is the complex bordered by Normal, Salem, First and Second. When they replace Taylor Hall, we will replace it on the same footprint, but maybe with a two-, three- or maybe even part of it will be four stories.

What will be the effect of the recent California Supreme Court decision that CSU must pay for the impacts of new construction?

It’s not as simple as that. It emphasizes fair share. And that opens up for discussion exactly what “fair share” means. Certainly this campus is ready to do that. For example, installing signal lights at intersections, that would be an appropriate sharing of expenses in order to deal with that. … I think as long as the spirit of cooperation and partnership is there, I don’t anticipate any problems.

Will that have an impact on any current projects?

No, none whatsoever. I know there’s been some concern raised about parking with respect to the Wildcat Activity Center, but we anticipate that the use of that center will be at off-peak hours. It tends to be used from 6 to 9 in the morning and after 6 at night, and that’s exactly opposite of the high-impact use of parking during the academic day. (For more on the construction, see page 18.)

Sustainability is one of the university’s big initiatives, yet students—many of whom live nearby—push for more parking on campus. How are you juggling these concerns?

We will add parking, but it will be in the perimeter, because we want to emphasize the campus as a pedestrian campus; we want to emphasize the campus as a bicycle-friendly campus. And we want to do whatever we do on the campus as part of a more holistic approach to transportation and parking within the city.

IN OFFICE <br>Paul Zingg has been Chico State’s president since 2004

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

For example, we need both east-west and north-south bike lanes. They don’t exist right now. So whatever we accomplish with the city for Second Street, for example, needs to include a bike lane. We want to preserve the inner campus as a pedestrian campus. So there will be bike access to the campus and a little bit of an incursion into the campus, but we want to preserve the central core of the campus as pedestrian only.

This is a learning community. To be able to drive to 10 feet of your building and rush out of your car and into your office or classroom and rush back out defeats the purpose, I think, of a community where people mingle and meet each other and see each other. … The idea is to balance convenience with community.

Why not have bikes and bike paths on campus?

We do [just not in the center]. We haven’t figured out the last word on a bike policy on campus yet. I think we need to make bicycle access and transit better and more accessible and to balance that with the campus, at least in the core, being a pedestrian-oriented campus. People can still walk their bikes. Goodness, from one end of the campus to the other is 10 minutes, walking.

For students who live off campus, a lot of them live to the north, but it’s not a very safe area. Are you doing anything regarding safety?

Yes. We’re doing a lot. I think all the new lighting on Fifth Street and Ivy is a good example of the city working with the university to respond to concerns about safety in that area. It might be overlit at this point. But nevertheless, both the university and city identified that area in particular as an area that needed to be better lit. The same thing is true of the campus itself. We do these midnight strolls through campus to identify problem areas, where there’s too much shadow or too much overgrowth. And our facility management people have been terrific in responding to that.

We need to continue to do the same thing in terms of our folks who live in University Village out there on Nord, but also respecting that our neighbors over here don’t want floodlights dominating their streets. We need to balance all of that. But safety, whether it’s on the campus or on the perimeter of the campus, is something that we are working with the city on.

A lot of it, too, is information. Chico is relatively safe, but we’ve had ugliness and we’ve had violence and we’ve had tragedy. And we have to be very honest with our students and provide them with guidance as to how to be more careful. That’s a major part of orientation—that even here you can’t let your guard down completely.

You’ve talked about stewardship in terms of conduct as well as conservation. How are your efforts going with fraternities and sororities?

I think they’re going well. My approach right from the beginning has been not to [dictate] what they should not do, but rather to focus on their own values and to basically challenge them to live up to those values. Their charters are filled with nice words like “service” and “friendship” and “community” and “respect.” And I basically said, “Is this who you are or not? Because if you’re not, you’re a bunch of frauds.” I used that language. Now, if you are who you say you are, the Greek system and the university can both benefit.

The response has been very gratifying so far, particularly from the leadership of the fraternities and sororities, many of whom quite frankly were looking for help from the university to deal with some problem members that they had within their chapters—folks for whom those values meant nothing. So the university said, “We’ll help you recover your own core values, because if you do, that’s complementary to the university’s interests.”

The prohibition of freshmen rushing in the fall has not adversely affected their membership. We’ve seen the fraternities and sororities have already been involved in community service activities. They’re doing more of that, and I think they’re feeling good about themselves, and rediscovering that community and sisterhood and brotherhood are a lot more than drinking until you pass out.

With fraternity and sorority houses off-campus, do you think this is an issue just for the university to solve? Or should the city play a role—and perhaps a bigger role?

It’s got to play a role and they are playing a role. The recent MOU [memorandum of understanding] between the University Police Department and the city Police Department regarding the university’s ability to be the first responder to any problems at any of the Greek houses is a very good example of trust and partnership. (For more on this, see page 17.)

The partnership is critical to ensure the Greeks that we’re not necessarily there to police them, but to deal with some of the uninvited ugliness that can accompany large gatherings.

Are you facing any litigation or legal challenges from the fraternities or sororities for the measures you’re taking?

We have one sorority that feels like the university’s rules and regulations violate various First Amendment matters, and since that’s still in litigation I’d prefer to not talk much about it. I’m optimistic that that case will eventually be resolved in a way that recognizes that the university’s actions are prudent and appropriate.

How is the university doing financially?

There are a number of ways to answer that question. As part of the larger CSU system, where we participate in the so-called compact with the governor—it’s now in its third year, and each year so far the funding that we’ve received has been actually in excess of the compact’s minimums.

With enrollment growth, that means additional state support as well as additional student fee support. So our budget this year will go up about 5 percent over last year, because the state general fund has gone up as well as the increased enrollment and student fees that that represents. And advancement, again, $8-plus million.

Of course, costs go up. Benefits, insurance, energy. But, we’re better this year than we were last year. No doubt there’s a downward cycle somewhere in our future—there always is, about every 10 years—but at the moment our budget situation is better than it’s been.

With that eye toward a potential downward spiral, are you shoring up reserves, or are you taking that money and applying it now?

The university as a whole and the individual units, we all have a sort of rainy-day scenario. Again, it’s prudence more than anything else that dictates that we don’t spend every dime that we bring in. If we had a flood or some other unforeseen problem, we’d need to have a reserve of some sort available.

PARK IT <br>Chico State does not allow bike-riding in the campus core.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

What is your reaction to the recent uproar about CSU administrators’ pay and perks, which put your predecessor in the spotlight?

On one hand, I work with these folks, and I know that they work hard. It’s sad to see their dedication and their work denigrated, ignored, or lost in this controversy. On the other hand, you do have a trustee-approved policy. That policy has changed over the years, but nevertheless it’s a public policy that the chancellor and the trustees have been enforcing. So, I think coming on the heels of the University of California controversy, it’s understandable why the CSU has not escaped scrutiny. I understand the interest and the concern.

Has this changed your plans for the future, either for yourself or for the provost that you’re in the process of hiring?

No, I don’t have any special deal. Whenever I retire—I have no plans to do so anytime soon—I will be entitled to some sort of a transitional fund. And then if I exercise my retreat rights as a tenured full professor to go back into the classroom, I’ll do that. But no, it hasn’t affected our plans one way or the other.

How close are you to hiring a provost?

The search is under way. We’re in the process now of receiving nominations and applications. When the faculty are back in a couple of weeks and the search committee reconvenes, I hope that they will basically spend September evaluating our pool, get to the process of inviting our finalists to the campus in October. I would love to be able to make an offer by Nov. 1, and that person would start as soon thereafter as his or her schedule and the university’s allow.

What are you looking for in the next provost?

Somebody who can walk on water and leap tall buildings in a single bound and is faster than a speeding bullet. [Chuckles.] First and foremost, a natural leader. This is the chief academic officer of the university. So the person has to have great academic integrity and great credibility with the faculty. Someone who understands what it means to be a teaching-learning community of the highest quality … who will be a critical player in the recruitment of academic leadership, deans, chairpeople and faculty.

We’re looking at 40, 50, 60 new faculty a year over the next five, six, seven years. So, half or more of our faculty are going to turn over in that period. The new provost will have a major role in helping shape our Chico State faculty for the next generation or two.

What’s the source of the turnover?

These are all the folks, the baby boomers. They were hired as faculty in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have been here 25, 30, 35 years. It’s a national phenomenon; we’re not exempt from that. Some will go into early retirement—that option is a good option in this system. And some will teach beyond traditional retirement age. But we will still see a lot of turnover.

Part of it will be growth, too. As we grow our enrollments … part of that means new faculty. I think we have 42, 44 new faculty coming in this fall.

Do you think that getting so many new faculty members will change the environment around campus?

Hopefully for the good. The good thing about higher education is you’re refreshed every year with new students. It’s the same thing with new faculty. These people are coming to us with cutting-edge expertise in their disciplines, and who would not want to have faculty like that? They’re also coming to us because they want to be at an institution where its primary focus is undergraduate teaching. So, bring ’em on.

Cheating was a big concern of students a few years back. What progress has been made since then on policies or practices to prevent academic fraud?

Two things: Particularly the initiatives undertaken by the Associated Students, and then working with the Academic Senate. Resolutions affirming academic integrity as a touchstone of our lives.

I think this conversation has gone up and down throughout the system, as individual departments and colleges as a whole have had really good discussions among themselves about rigor. Rigor is not necessarily hard grading; rigor is a combination of high expectations and the commitment in our faculty to bring to their classes fair and high expectations, and to be clear to students about what they are.

There’s a good dialogue that’s occurring. It’s lovely to see students and faculty talking about academic integrity and academic rigor, and I think we’ll be a better place, a higher-quality academic place, as a result of that.

What is the biggest problem you’ve seen on campus?

I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem, but there are certainly challenges. The challenge of communication is always one. Try as we might through Web and eyeball-to-eyeball and newsletters and whatever other means we have, not everybody gets and understands the same information in the same way. We need to keep trying to be clearer in our communications, more transparent in some of our practices, for example how budgets are constructed, so people feel that they are informed. They might not necessarily want to be engaged … but they need to feel informed.

What demands most of your thought and energy?

Trying to address issues of morale, trying to always stay positive—I’m an eternal optimist; a 12-ounce glass is always more than half full—and looking for the silver lining even though I have some difficult moments with fraternity stuff, student conduct issues the past couple of years. They were really hard on the university’s image. People were very discouraged and thought, “Oh, we’re a party school, we’ll never be able to change that.” But we are. There’s an opportunity in all of that to talk about values and to talk about community and to raise expectations.

Lastly, you’re a big sports fan—any thoughts of taking Chico State to Division I?

No. None whatsoever. I think in many respects we are the premier Division II program in the country. Measured in terms of how our student athletes perform in intercollegiate competition, measured in terms of the retention and graduation rates of our student athletes, I think we’re already there as the premier D-II program in the country, and I don’t see any compelling reason to be other than that.

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