Where we were, what went wrong & how we build a brighter future
This is a letter to the editor from Humboldt State University Education Department Chair Eric Van Duzer, Ph.D. It has been edited only for minor punctuation and grammar style preferences.
As I reflect back on nearly 30 years at Humboldt State University, first as a student and then for the past 20 years as a faculty member, I wanted to share some of the thoughts that I have about HSU’s current situation and where the campus might go from here.
As a student I experienced a remarkable education where faculty were fully invested in my intellectual and personal development. There were so many opportunities to explore areas of interest and develop new ones. I have spent many hours trying to encapsulate the nature of the schooling I experienced in a way that would really represent the experience.
The best analogy I have been able to come up with was that HSU offered a graduate education to undergraduates. The small classes typical of graduate school encouraged faculty to fully invest in their student’s growth. The university, set so far from the oversight of CSU headquarters in Long Beach, offered a great deal of flexibility to shape our experiences.
I was the first student CEO of the Institute of Industrial Technology, a self-supporting club that allowed us to use the skills and knowledge we were developing to grow in business acumen, engage in manufacturing and light construction on campus as well as conduct experiments for local agencies. In its second year, Bill Wilkinson used the institute to earn enough profit making desks for campus offices that it paid for several pieces of expensive equipment for the department.
This would be impossible today. In those days HSU had the third smallest class sizes in the 23 campuses of CSU. But more than that, it had a unique faculty ethos that reflected nearly 100 years as a student-focused institution that exalted excellence in teaching above all else.
Faculty came to campus because this is where they wanted to spend their career. Unlike most universities where faculty play academic hopscotch building their resume through research reputations and earning ever-higher salaries as they bounce from college to college, HSU faculty built their reputations on teaching. These were inherently local reputations, not very valuable if one wanted to move on, but rather a reflection of the values and attitudes associated with a culture of excellence in the service of students’ intellectual growth.
As anyone who has worked with university budgets will tell you, graduate education is expensive. That is why through the first 100 years, the administration and other services were done on a shoestring. It was common for a variety of upper administrative positions to be filled by faculty who served temporarily. Staff was thin and overworked and processes were slow and inconsistent.
Yet, the campus, with significant leadership from the faculty, focused its significant resources on classroom instruction, and through that dedication, produced exceptional graduates who were deeply committed to HSU when they graduated.
I remember an administrator in the early years telling me that he had been in a restaurant on the East Coast and overheard a group of students talking at a nearby table. He was so impressed with their sophistication and the values they held he found out where they came from and immediately applied for a job at HSU.
He was the first person hired under then-president Rollin Richmond to manage our enrollments in the early 2000s. The diversity on our campus is a credit to him and Richmond, who reached out across the state to bring in students from urban areas. Sadly he became disillusioned and left. So did most of the faculty leaders.
What happened? In the early 2000s the CSU was facing the onslaught of a Generation X student bulge. Chancellor Charles Reed decided the best strategy to deal with this situation was to homogenize campuses so that if a student could not get into Sacramento State because it was impacted, they could simply go to another campus and get a similar experience.
Naturally, faculty on campuses such as HSU who were proud of their traditions and niche identities resisted. Fiercely. At one point, three campus presidents, including Rollin Richmond, suffered through votes of no confidence by their faculty as they implemented this strategy.
To achieve the required changes in the face of faculty resistance, campuses, including Humboldt, began shifting to a corporate structure of top down management. Faculty who had held a privileged position in campus life were systematically reduced to workers with only a symbolic voice in campus decisions. The administration turned its focus inward towards improving the functioning of the bureaucracy. They eliminated administrators such as Rick Vrem, an ethical provost, who refused to implement changes that hurt the traditional focus on instruction.
Vrem was replaced with a provost who had no such compunction. Shortly thereafter the upper administration received inflated titles and significant raises in an apparent effort to reduce resistance. Then the attack on the faculty began. Nearly 80 faculty positions were eliminated over several years and during the same time period, a similar number of new staff positions were created and filled to support administrative functions.
Over the majority of the intervening 15 years, budget reductions for academic programs have been the norm: reductions in staff, program availability and courses. This year it was a 6% cut, last year another and many like it before. The funds have been shifted to an ever-expanding variety of administrative initiatives.
We spend nearly 68% of our budget on administration and campus facilities. Despite the results of a study commissioned by Rollin Richmond’s administration that showed the two most important factors that cause a student to come to HSU are quality of education and availability of the program they are interested in, both have been repeatedly attacked, sliced and diminished.
It is surprising that no one seems to notice that every time we cut academic programs, fewer students want to come here. And when fewer students come here, the budget suffers and HSU responds by cutting academic programs even more severely—a cycle the faculty in 2004 described as a “death spiral.”
As we address our current crisis and try to figure out what we need to become in order to grow back to a sustainable enrollment, we might want to engage in some soulful reflection. What would cause a 20-year-old to come to a place five hours from major centers of civilization and spend four years with us? What do we have to offer them that is so valuable, so different from what they can get at any of the other CSU campuses which are closer, cheaper and offer a great deal more college life in the community?
We stopped selling the small classes and close academic relationships with faculty when the hypocrisy became too much to bear as campus priorities shifted. Now we sound more like a parks and recreation office than a university. Come for the redwoods, the beaches, the bike riding—that is wonderful and I love it, but it is not why people pick a university.
When I arrived here as a faculty member in 2000 we had one staff member, John Filce, doing institutional research. He was wonderful and badly overworked. I am sure he still is. Now we have nine staff members listed in the directory in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, including a vice president. I am sure their work is valuable, but to pay for it we had to cut 64 class sections.
We have proliferated the bureaucracy, which is unfortunately necessary to achieve top-down control of a professional organization. Had our leadership studied industrial technology with me, they would know what companies in the 1970s learned: that this form of management is ineffective and inefficient in a professional organization.
To achieve control requires monitoring, which in turn requires more staff. For a top-down organization, where the vast majority of employees serve at the will of their manager, fear prevents innovation and compliance is key. Before the shift to this model, administrators were problem solvers. In fact, the standing joke in those days was that everything was an exception. Faculty, staff and administrators had the flexibility to serve the needs of students even when it required bending the rules.
Today, we are an organization of inflexible rules and their keepers. It has greatly diminished the effectiveness of the organization and its ability to make decisions that best serve our students. The resulting bureaucratic culture has seen a proliferation of forms, rule books and rigid adherence to often dysfunctional orders.
This is no way to run a university. Perhaps a grocery store, but not an organization of 500 highly educated experts with thousands of years of collective experience. Top-down decision-making, particularly when the president and upper administrators are drawn from institutions that do not share the culture and values of the campus, is inherently poor compared to what would be possible if faculty once again had a meaningful voice in campus affairs.
The proof of this is apparent everywhere at HSU. When Rollin Richmond came, he had no interest in what made HSU special. Like a white suburban principal coming to a school in Watts, he thought he knew what needed to be done to remake the university into his vision of a modern institution. That ignorance has cost us immeasurably. Today we face the consequences. The failure to fundamentally change direction of subsequent presidents has simply deepened the mess. We now have a new president, perhaps we can find a new vision.
In my view there are two key concerns that need to be addressed from a rational and values-driven perspective. First, an effective budget model that allows funding to follow enrollment is essential to support growing programs while shifting resources to where they will best serve student needs and interests. This can refocus the campus on providing the service/product students come here for—classroom instruction—and it is essential.
No student has ever come to HSU because we have a wonderful registrar’s office or because the president’s office is fully staffed. These only matter when they impact the quality of the education a student receives.
Second, we have to decide how we are going to rebuild the excellence we once were known for in our student’s academic programs. The day Rollin Richmond refused to give the Outstanding Faculty Award to a physics professor (selected by the faculty based on his ability to delight and inspire students) because that professor had not published, is the day we snuffed out the soul of the old HSU campus.
Now we need to find out what animates us in ways that provide an experience worth the isolation, cost and struggles required to live in this remote community. Redwoods are not enough; we need a reinvestment in education.
I am retiring from HSU at the end of this May. I am sad to see what has happened to my university. There are so many amazing faculty and academic staff here. They are people with a heart for their students, struggling in a system that constrains and conflicts with their efforts. Let their voices guide the future and we may yet have one worth celebrating.