Left in the dark

Facing unexpected budget deficit, Chico State faculty decry lack of transparency

Robert Jones, a philosophy professor at Chico State, poses outside the Arts and Humanities Building. He says faculty members in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts are “all waiting for a clear explanation” of the suddenly announced shortfall.

Robert Jones, a philosophy professor at Chico State, poses outside the Arts and Humanities Building. He says faculty members in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts are “all waiting for a clear explanation” of the suddenly announced shortfall.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As a philosophy professor at Chico State, Robert Jones places high value on reason and logic, and he tends to get frustrated when he can’t make sense of a situation.

Case in point: Back in November, voters approved Proposition 55, which extends an income tax on the wealthiest Californians to help pay for public services, including schools. Then the California State University board of trustees voted in March to increase student tuition by 5 percent. The tuition hike alone is set to infuse tens of millions of dollars into the CSU system annually.

So why, Jones asked, is Chico State’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts suddenly looking up from the bottom of a big budget deficit?

“We’re all waiting for an explanation. … When you don’t have a clear explanation, you hypothesize,” he said.

In an email to faculty on April 24, Dean Robert Knight announced that the college is facing a $1.2 million shortfall heading into fiscal year 2017-18. (For reference, the total 2016-17 budget was $10.9 million.) Canceling classes next fall seems like a certainty, Jones said, but exactly how many is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, all funding for professional development—money that allows faculty to travel and present research at conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals—has been frozen indefinitely.

In the absence of straight answers, rumors are swirling and staff morale is low, said Susanna Boxall, a philosophy and humanities lecturer. She’s concerned that students who are struggling to pay tuition won’t be able to take the general education classes they need to graduate. Like other adjunct faculty, who are not tenured, she is afraid of losing her job.

“Nobody was looking each other in the eyes for a couple of days,” she said.

News of the shortfall comes amid broader scrutiny of the way the entire CSU system handles public funds. Last month, State Auditor Elaine Howle concluded in an exhaustive report that, across the board, CSU campuses “do not adequately oversee their budgets.” Furthermore, the institutions lack written policies and records of spending levels compared with budget limits, “which hampers accountability and transparency,” Howle wrote.

It’s all too familiar to Boxall, who feared for her livelihood in fall 2015 due to rumors of budget-related layoffs (see “Classes dismissed?” Newslines, Dec. 3, 2015). But that was under an administration led by President Paul Zingg, Interim Provost Susan Elrod and Lorraine Hoffman, vice president for business and finance—an executive trio widely criticized for opaque and unilateral decision-making. All three were delivered votes of no confidence by Chico State’s Academic Senate in December 2015 and have since left their posts at the university.

Many on campus expect greater transparency from President Gayle Hutchinson and recently hired Provost Debra Larson, the latter of whom is responsible for setting the budget.

“We thought those days were over,” Boxall said.

The university administration’s stance is that the College of Humanities and Fine Arts isn’t paying for itself. The program offers many state-mandated general education courses in English, history, arts, music and philosophy that students need to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. As Knight explained in his email to faculty, the college breaks even on those courses.

However, it’s been losing money on upper-division classes due to enrollment that has been steadily dwindling since 2008, Larson wrote in an email to the CN&R. “Our experiences are, unfortunately, in line with the national trends in enrollment by students in the arts and humanities,” she said.

Jones acknowledged that attracting and retaining students who major in arts and humanities is an ongoing problem, but he doesn’t believe it explains the college’s entire deficit.

“Shouldn’t somebody be budgeting for that? This is what administrators are supposed to be doing,” he said. “This is their job. My job is to serve my students in the classroom and be a professional philosopher. Their job is to figure out this number-crunching.”

As to why news of the budget deficit came so suddenly, Larson said there were “a number of administrative transitions” when she became provost on March 2, adding: “As soon as I began to understand the HFA budget situation, I reached out to the dean.”

The budget shortfall is unique to the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Larson continued. All other colleges on campus are “finishing the fiscal year even or in the black.” She acknowledged that classes with low enrollment are in danger of getting cut next fall—and, when asked about the future of arts and humanities instructors, she said simply: “Our full-time faculty are not at risk.”

Larson has agreed to hold an on-campus meeting on May 19, the last day of final exams, to go over the budget outlook with HFA faculty.