The Lumberjack editors met with the president of Humboldt State University, Lisa Rossbacher, on March 23. The Q&A was largely centered around budget cuts and social issues that impact the local community, especially HSU students.
This is one of two transcriptions of the meeting that revolves around HSU budget cuts. The second half, which focuses on social issues, will be published on March 28.
Matthew Hable (editor-in-chief): “What is a typical day like for you?”
Rossbacher: “When I get to campus, I take a few minutes to check in with people – the provost office, the Vice President of Student Affairs office – checking in on where I know there have been issues.
Then I usually have a series of meetings. They will often be back to back until six or seven o’clock. I guess what’s significant is what those meetings are about. I meet with all the vice presidents at least every other week, some of them every week. It’s a combination of them telling me what’s going on, getting advice or, in some cases, decisions [on], ‘What should we do about this?’ or ‘I haven’t a clue of what to do. What kind of advice do you have?’ We talk through it.
Some of it is information, some of it is problem solving and some of it is decision making. And that goes in both directions, because I ask them for advice, too.
Some of [the meetings] are with groups. Today, we had a three-hour meeting with the cabinet, which is the vice presidents [and] senior leadership at the university. Before that, I did a debrief with all the people involved in the logistics of having [WASC] here to see ‘How did that go? What worked? What didn’t work? Let’s take some notes for ourselves.’ So when they come back in three, five, eight or 10 years, we remember what worked or didn’t.”
Lora Neshovska (managing editor): “Do you mind elaborating on what worked or didn’t work with WASC?”
Rossbacher: “Yes. Some of the biggest issues were the communications with the person handling the logistics of the visiting team weren’t as strong as they could’ve been. So [they] assumed we knew some things we didn’t, like the team room was the conference room over at Siemens Hall. That was supposed to be the working room. We still had a lot of meetings in there, which was inappropriate because they had all of their confidential materials. They covered up the big conference table with notes, and it wasn’t appropriate to have a meeting with groups in there. So, we had to scramble.
Similarly, they got here and said, ‘Did we mention to you that the chair of the visiting team needs to talk to the chancellor?’ No. The chancellor was in a meeting with the board of trustees. So we had to scramble around and find a few minutes for the chair to talk on the phone [with] the chancellor. So a lot of issues were just that kind of miscommunication. [WASC] took it all in stride. We dealt with it.
We thought we had all the contingency plans in place to get them here, because they all heard about how difficult it can be to fly into Humboldt County. The closest ones were coming from the Bay Area, but there were people coming from Southern California, Arizona and Hawaii. Four of the six team members flew to get here. None of them arrived in the flight they were originally booked on. Two of them arrived in the later flights and the other two ended up driving from San Francisco. So one of the weird things about the exit meeting is that we knew that was an issue, but they didn’t believe it when we told them how difficult it would be. But by the time they got here, they understood that. They were all scheduled to fly out at 11 a.m. from Arcata today, but yesterday and the day before, that flight was cancelled. They were really worried about getting out. That’s why the meetings this morning were so early. Originally, the public meeting was going to be at eight, and they pushed it to 7:30 a.m. so that they could hit the road at eight [and] drop back to San Francisco. They didn’t want to take a chance.”
Hable: “As you know, HSU students organized a walkout protesting the budget cuts on March 21. Students are having a hard time believing the ‘Students First‘ agenda. My two-part question for you is, where were you during the protest? How would you respond to not just students, but staff and faculty who are frustrated with this institution?”
Rossbacher: “I was in a series of meetings, ranging from the theatre arts building, to the library, to the arts building [and] to the student services building.
I understand the frustration people have for all of us to wrap our minds around the budget. This is something that did not happen overnight. It’s not because of misuse of funds. It built up over a number of years. The pieces of the budget problem come from spending more money than we have, basically, and [it] happening year after year. Historically, when we’ve overspent, we have had reserves. We can then get through the year.
On the one hand, that’s a wonderful thing, because it meant that we can protect the areas being impacted by the budget reductions. But we’ve used up the reserves. We can’t keep doing that. For those of you who have been in the budget meetings, someone pointed out that the reserves is about $6.2 or $6.3 million. That’s less than one month of payroll, so we can’t keep spending it down.
Let me mention one other reason. One of the reasons why we [shouldn’t] draw down reserves, [but] to build them up, is that a couple of years ago, the Cal State system was given the authority by the state legislature to issue bonds. That’s good news, because that means we don’t have to compete with other state agencies for building projects. The board of trustees can issue their own bonds. When they ordered for them to do that for a campus, the campus has to be able to come up with at least 10 percent of the cost of the project.
If we want a new science building, we might have to come up with [up to] $10 million just to put in our piece of that to be able to get additional money for the project. So we’re motivated not just to have some reserves to protect us against overspending, but those reserves are what we need to be able to get new buildings on campus.”
Hable: “Where do those reserves come from?”
Rossbacher: “Internal funding. Money we don’t spend. Half of our money comes from our state allocation, which goes from the governor, to the state legislature, approved by the state governor, to the chancellor’s office [and] to the campuses in the Cal State system. Think of it as coming from the state allocation.
Neshovska: “Where does the rest of the money come from? What can be done to build up those reserves?”
Rossbacher: “The other half comes from tuition. Right now, in the [CSU] system, about half the operating dollars come from the state allocation and the bounty of the other half comes from tuition.
Neshovska: “If you can’t increase funding from the state allocation, would the solution be to increase the tuition?”
Rossbacher: “Or spend less.”
Gabe Rivera (sports editor): “Scholarships of Humboldt State student athletes have been cancelled. Why were they taken away?”
Rossbacher: “The scholarship money for student athletes primarily comes from fundraising – donors who give money specifically to athletics. Because athletics this year is running about a $900,000 deficit, [which] has to be picked up by the state, we’re trying to channel as much of the fundraised dollars toward the operational aspects of it rather than going directly into scholarships.
Rivera: “Would the programs be cancelled if the scholarships stopped coming in?”
Rossbacher: “I see how you make that connection, but I wouldn’t do it quite that way. It’s operational dollars that are really needed to continue to offer the athletics program. If you want to talk about athletics in general, we can do that.
Rivera: “Were you aware of coach Rob Smith’s retirement before you made the decision to keep the football program? What affect would that have had in your decision?”
Rossbacher: “I was not aware that he wasn’t thinking about that. I was surprised when I heard the announcement.”
Ahmed Al-Sakkaf (news editor): “Associate Director of Housing Facilities Steve McKenzie also planned to retire, but his position was eliminated early. Dean of College of Natural Resources and Sciences Richard Boone resigned, effective June 30, but was let go early. Why was Boone’s resignation sped up?”
Rossbacher: “When you resign, you can suggest a date, but you can’t always pick it.”
Al-Sakkaf: “WASC pointed out how there’s a lot of interim positions in the university. Now you hired an interim dean to replace Boone.”
Rossbacher: “One of the ways to look at this is, ‘Why are people in interim positions?’ In some cases, it’s because we’re in the middle of a search. For example, we have an Interim Vice President of Student and Administration. We’re in a search that we’ll come to a conclusion very soon. It’s just a transitional thing. The Vice President for Student Affairs, Brumfield, has ‘interim’ in the title, but he’s going to be here next year, too.
Interim implies that we have a lot of turnover. When you look at every individual case, everyone makes sense and provides more stability than we would have otherwise.
There are some other people right now who have ‘interim’ in their title, but it’s because we had a vacancy. We look around on campus and thought, ‘You know what, we have someone really good for this position right now.’ It’s a growth opportunity. We want to put that person in this job for now. We can’t just appoint someone without ‘interim’ in the title unless we do a full-scale search. It’s a matter of equity and fairness.
We have some people who have ‘interim’ in their title, because we have confidence in them and that job right now. That’s a limit of two years. We can have people with ‘interim’ in their title before we do a search. Sometimes it’s because we got the right person. We want them doing that right now.”
Kyra Skylark (science editor): “There are professors within the sciences who are retiring soon. Apparently, some of their positions are not going to be filled. What is happening to those classes after they retire? Also, you said that a new science building might be built in the near future. If there’s money being cut within the science department, why are we spending money to construct another building?”
Rossbacher: “If you’re a science major, you know what the science buildings look like. No matter what, they need to be at least renovated, upgraded or preferably replaced. Whether we’re able to build an entirely new building or if it’s a matter of knocking one down is a separate set of questions. But the deans of all the departments have been charged with looking at the courses that we’re offering for next year, and taking a really hard look at what the courses are, students’ needs and making sure those are being offered in the most efficient way possible.
There’s a wide range of ways that’s happened. Part of it is looking into DARS. That’s going to be a critical tool for being able to project what classes students need. It’s an incredibly important tool to match up student demand, students’ need for courses and what the departments offer. It’s looking at how many students are interested in a class and matching the size of the class with space available.
Obviously, there’s a point beyond which it doesn’t make sense to grow, and you need to have multiple sections. [We need to make] sure we are being efficient [and] offering courses frequently as we need to for students to be able to get them. In some cases, that may mean we’re offering some of the required courses more frequently than some of the elective courses less frequently.”
Skylark: “How are you deciding what classes are needed for the students?”
Rossbacher: “I am not directly involved in that. It’s department chairs working with deans who are also working with the provost office.
I want to be careful that we are not getting rid of courses, options or programs without doing a thoughtful analysis of what they are, what the student interest is in that. We have many years of data in enrollments and things like that.
Over the next year, we are planning to do an assessment of every program at the university. That’s just not academic programs, that’s administrative programs, too. That’s my office, too. We have the data that helps us understand how effective they are, how well they’re meeting the needs of students and then we’ll be able to make some informed decisions about whether we need to consolidate, shrink or expand.
One of the goals of the budget planning process [is] not just to cut the budget down to, ‘We’re only studying what we have.’ We’re also trying to put the university in a position where we can strategically invest in strong and new programs. It’s not just chopping to be able to maintain what we’ve got. It’s also making sure we have the resources to be able to invest in the future.
I know that a number of years ago we went through what was called ‘program prioritization,’ which I think got a bad reputation. It’s a way of figuring out which programs need to be eliminated, decreased in size, maintain the way they are or invest in. I want to be sure that this university is a place where we can invest in new programs and growing the programs.”
Skylark: “How are you able to do that with the budget cuts?”
Rossbacher: “By continuing to be strategic about how we reduce in reallocating money. You’ve all been to the website of URPC? One of the things they look at is the strategic budget and strategic investments. In some cases, it’s a matter of finding efficiencies. It’s a matter of identifying ways to realize additional money. In some cases, it’s additional revenue and figuring out how to invest that into new programs.
First, we have to balance the budget. As additional resources come in, you can start strategically thinking about where to invest them.”
Neshovska: “So essentially the first step is trying to balance the budget from all these places in order to build it back up and increase revenue.”
Rossbacher: “Yes, that would’ve been a better way for me to say it in the first place.
You can think about it from your personal checkbook. If you’ve overspent, first you need to get the spending under control. But as you get your next paycheck, you got the basic needs covered. Then you have to think about what you’re going to do with that extra money, where you’re going to invest in it.”
Neshovska: “Once we do balance the budget, where can we rely on external resources?”
Hable: “Going off of that, I realize your salary is public records, but you approximately make half a million dollars per year, including benefits. The provost makes roughly a quarter of a million dollars per year. How much of that money do you invest into the university?”
Rossbacher: “The salary is right. The other pay, I’m not sure where that number comes from. Some of it is housing allowance. Half the president in the Cal State system, houses are provided for them. I don’t get free housing, I get a supplement for that. But the benefits part, that’s my healthcare.
Hable: “Your salary was part of the frustration at the protest. While you make that much a year, students are upset that they are walking away with a large debt.”
Rossbacher: “One of the things that I think is real special about Humboldt State is the focus that we have here on environmental and social justice. Students at Humboldt State are committed to making a change in the world. Our graduates literally do that all over the world.
I think that’s something really important that this university does something valuable for our graduates. I worry that we’re not following the continuum that gets us to effective change in the world. It begins with protest, and that form of activism. Being a change agent moves from that to dialogue, discussion, collaboration and collective problem solving for a collective impact. And that moves to the actual change.
I worry that we’re not serving students well by having all of that change process stuck in the protest part. It’s something that concerns me about the protest that we had on Wednesday. It doesn’t move from the protest to the discussion, the collaboration, problem solving and then effective change.
What I see, and what I think is important for this university, is to model how we follow that whole process.”
Al-Sakkaf: “How do you feel about having ‘shame’ written across your face on a flyer and distributed around campus?”
Rossbacher: “Disappointed and frustrated. At some level, I understand, but I’m not sure what the point of that is.”
Al-Sakkaf: “The point is your paycheck.”
Rossbacher: “So if I work for free, it doesn’t solve the university’s budget problem.”
Hable: “Students walk away with $20,000 to $40,000 in debt. Personally, I am walking out of here with $22,000 in debt when I graduate in May. There are parts of this university where I feel frustrated, where I did not get my money’s worth.”
Rossbacher: “Can you give me an example?”
Hable: “I’m an example of a student where we have that knowledge of how much you get paid per year, but students are going into debt. People are getting fired, let go or what have you. That’s where the frustration comes from. I was at Siemens Hall on Wednesday. People were angry and there was a dialogue. It was a protest, but there was also a dialogue.
Rossbacher: “There was?”
Hable: “Yeah, but it was an angry dialogue. Students were pretty outraged. I know it’s not the most diplomatic way of handling it, but people feel that way. I think that’s where the ‘shame’ comes from.”
Rossbacher: “I graduated from college with debt. I spent my first year after I graduated – I lived under $2,000 the whole year. [My parents said] we can help you some as an undergraduate, [but] not completely. When I graduated they gave me a backpack, a jackknife, a subscription to Science magazine and they said, ‘Good luck.’ I’ve been there, too. I understand.”