Restore the vision, Zingg says

University president gives somber assessment of higher education in California

At the end of a week when more than 50 students were arrested while protesting rising university fees and enrollment cutbacks, and the state’s legislative analyst predicted $20 billion budget deficits for the next five years, Chico State University President Paul Zingg gave a somber assessment of higher education in California to a group of local business people.

The standout factoid in his presentation Friday (Nov. 20) at the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s AM Issues breakfast at the CARD Center was that enrollment at Chico State would be cut by 9.5 percent next year. Using figures provided by economist David Gallo, who also spoke at the event, Zingg noted that this cutback would result in an estimated $46 million hit to the local economy and the loss of 486 jobs.

Gallo cautioned that his estimates were rough. And, in response to a question from the audience, he contextualized the $46 million figure by noting it represented about 1 percent of the local economy.

Zingg said he was sharply aware of the university’s outsized economic impact on Chico and had sought to convince CSU Chancellor Charles Reed to go easier on the enrollment cutbacks. As it was, Zingg got the only reduction among the 23 campuses in the system, from 9.5 percent to 8 percent. Unfortunately, the university is currently overenrolled by 1.5 percent, which means he has to cut by 9.5 percent after all.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said, but it could be worse. San Jose State is overenrolled by 12.5 percent, so it will need to cut enrollment by 22 percent in just 18 months. He said he had no idea how that could be accomplished.

As much as he was genuinely concerned about the cutbacks’ impact on the Chico economy, Zingg was more worried about the long-term prospects for higher education in California and Chico State in particular.

Recalling the “visionary” 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which had been “central to the innovation and re-imagining of California” that led to the state’s tremendous prosperity, he said it had been based on three core principles: access, affordability and quality.

All three are being undermined, he said. With the cutbacks and rising fees, college is becoming less accessible and affordable. And the quality of faculty and programs is declining as classes are cut and teachers and researchers look elsewhere for work.

If you want to understand what’s going on, Zingg said, consider this: “Since 2002 enrollment in the CSU has gone up 29 percent, while state support has decreased by 28 percent and fees have gone up by 105 percent.”

Not only has this resulted in “an erosion of the master plan,” it’s also brought about “the complete dismantling” of an agreement reached with Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2005. Under that “governor’s compact,” the UC and CSU systems pledged themselves to a steady increase in growth—2.5 percent per year—in return for steady funding. (Then as now, Zingg was able to wangle an exception for Chico State, 1.5 percent.)

But that funding has been anything but steady, and now the CSU trustees are “playing hardball” by cutting enrollment by 60,000 students by the end of 2011.

It’s ironic, Zingg said, because when he arrived at Chico State in 2004, enrollment was declining. He was told to reverse that, and he did so. “Enrollment is up, diversity is up, and retention is up,” he said. “Everything a university is supposed to do, we’ve done. Our reward is that now we’re being told to reduce our enrollment by 9.5 percent.”

That amounts to 1,400 students who won’t be able to attend the university next year. And fewer students means less money coming in. This year the state used furloughs, a mandated reduction in salaries, to save money, but if they aren’t in effect next year, Zingg will have to come up with $8 million to $10 million in cuts—which will inevitably mean layoffs. “And fees, who knows?” he added.

The core problem, Zingg said, is that while 70 percent of Californians believe the state’s institutions of higher education are good to excellent, according to a recent Public Policy Institute study, only 30 percent think they should get more money.

Meanwhile, spending on the correctional system has gone from $4 billion to $11 billion in just 10 years, a 150 percent increase, thanks to such tough-on-crime measures as the three-strikes act. “That $11 billion is more than the combined support given to higher education,” he pointed out.

“In the midst of all this, you have a university in this community you can be very proud of.” It recently received a 10-year accreditation, something only 2 percent of universities get, he said.

“But a single line in the [accreditation] report asked how we were going to sustain this excellence in the face of the erosion of the larger system,” he continued.

What’s needed, he said, is a “restoration of the vision of the master plan,” and that “requires a dramatic rethinking of what prosperity is and what the state is going to look like in the future. … It’s going to take a major re-imagining of California.”