Taking the long view
University President Paul Zingg on the conflict between short-term budget fixes versus long-term education needs
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Paul Zingg is relaxed—smiling, even. Maybe it’s the effect of the holiday weekend, or the calm before the storm, or a masterful job of compartmentalizing, but Chico State University’s president doesn’t carry himself like a man burdened by challenging circumstances.
The country is in recession, the state government is in a protracted financial crisis, and public education is caught somewhere in between. Large cuts seem inevitable when the Legislature revisits the 2008-09 state budget—potentially millions of dollars for Chico State, which will have measurable impacts on the campus’ 17,000 students and the thousands of Chicoans who work there.
“I don’t expect anything to happen with the Legislature over the next few weeks, that’s for sure,” Zingg says. “There’s neither will nor interest—nor, I think, a lot of vision—to really keep focused on the long-term issues.”
Education is, by nature, a long-term issue. It involves years of dedication from students and integrated planning by educators. It’s an intangible commodity.
Intangible but important, from Zingg’s perspective. He quotes a comment he’s heard from Barack Obama and others that most of the jobs of the mid-21st-century economy have not been invented yet. Where, traditionally, have many of our country’s most innovative ideas come from? Universities, which makes slashing education funding seem to Zingg like a penny-wise, pound-foolish proposition.
Yet he’s not so insulated as to be blind to economic realities, so he knows what’s looming on the horizon. For the moment, his approach is “wait and see.” He’s encouraged by his university’s fundraising efforts and sees potential benefits coming from the CSU-wide enrollment freeze.
Mostly, as a historian, he knows that every point in time fits into a longer continuum, and it’s that long-range view—forward and back—that shapes his perspective.
And his posture.
Relaxed as he may be during an hour-long conversation, the smile does leave his face when he talks about the actual effect the budget is having—and will have—on students.
“A terrible irony in this is the [CSU] trustees have just adopted a strategic planning document titled ‘Access to Excellence,’ “ Zingg says, “and what’s terribly ironic is we’re at a point where both access and excellence are threatened.
“The decision made only a couple weeks ago to cut back enrollments next year by at least 10,000 full-time-equivalent students [systemwide] is a reflection of limited access at a time when the demand for higher education is as high as it’s ever been. Part of that is the state of the economy—in a recession or downward economic cycle, folks stay in school or go to school in order to retool, in order to become more competitive for a changing job market. …
“And, of course, the other side of ‘Access to Excellence’ is excellence,” he continues, “and if you don’t continue to invest and reinvest in our schools—K through 12 and higher education—not only are our students getting the short end of the stick, but in the long term our state is, our nation is. If we’re not current and we’re not engaged in cutting-edge research, we not only deny our workplace a workforce, but we also suffer the consequence of ignorance and myopia….”
Others—particularly those who sign the CSU’s checks—may disagree. Then again, they might agree. “I think one of the big challenges, certainly in this state, is we need to achieve a true public consensus about the place and role of higher education in California. We don’t have that, and the absence of consensus affects the way resources come or don’t come to our institutions.”
Training and practical research appear to have more of a tangible payoff than theoretical disciplines, yet Zingg does not feel pressure to change the university’s approach.
“I truly believe the best education involves a balance of both liberal and professional learning,” he replies. “I totally believe the first ones to hit the unemployment lines are going to be the most narrowly educated, and that’s as strong an endorsement for a liberal education as I can think of.”
So, when push comes to shove, the College of Agriculture won’t take precedence over the Department of Philosophy? “You still need irrigation experts who understand history, who understand local cultures, who can communicate effectively, who can analyze problems effectively, who can work in teams, who are always learning. And for the philosophy major, I think the tools and the skills of analysis, synthesis and criticism that are the heart of their discipline are translatable into so many fields.”
Those who come for that liberal education may change slightly over the next few years.
“A major goal is to stimulate more folks from the North State into going to college,” Zingg says, “so that involves [building] relationships with the Native American communities, reaching out to the Sikh communities in Oroville and Yuba City, the Hmong community in our back yard, as well as everyone else in the North State.
“But there just are not enough college-eligible students [in Chico State’s service area] to meet our targets, so we have to go elsewhere—and we’ll do so strategically. We’ll go to places where we know we can get diversity; we’ll go to places where we know we’re a name….
“We’d like prospective students to come here because of our commitment and our record of achievement in sustainability … and civic engagement. Actually, I think this situation gives us an opportunity to be more intentional [in recruiting applicants]. It’s very exciting to think about that.”
Zingg also feels positively about fundraising—alternately called “development” or “university advancement.” He says Chico State set records last year for the number of donors, the total raised and the amount in cash gifts (as opposed to deferred legacies). So far, so good for this academic year, he says, “even though the economy is worse. People give to good causes.”
That’s especially important considering the Wall Street crash reduced the value of the university’s endowment by 20 percent, to around $30 million. “We basically spend the interest [to support scholarships], we don’t spend the corpus; however, when the corpus declines, we have less spendable opportunities.”
The elephant in the room—or, perhaps more accurately, the iceberg to Chico State’s Titanic—is what the Legislature decides to do.
“One of the downsides of term limits is that it forces candidates to be even more local and more immediate in their focus,” Zingg says, “always looking toward an election that’s two years, or not many more, away. The absence of members of the Legislature with memory, context and advocacy on certain issues hurts areas like education, environmental issues—issues that are always dependent on the ability to take a long view and an approach that has more of an investment message to it than an entitlement element to it.
“We’ll have to see what the new Legislature looks like in these regards, but I think it will have to be a sea change for a lot of folks in Sacramento to move from the immediate and local to something that has long-term vision and the longtime good of the state in mind.”