At a recent reception, an elderly gentleman approached me. With some urgency, he grabbed my arm and told me a story similar to one I have heard thousands of times since arriving at SDSU three years ago. Each of these stories is unique and powerful, and they generally begin with a proud memory of San Diego State. In this case, the retired faculty member told me how proud he had been to teach at a university where attendance was free (or close to free) and open to students from many different backgrounds. He told me about a time when his department, in a spirit of grassroots activism, came together to build a community garden. I could see him and his smiling colleagues tilling the soil on a sun-drenched afternoon.
The story then shifted, becoming darker. The man recounted how, over the years, a series of state budget reductions led to fewer faculty members in his department, a bigger workload and fewer program opportunities for students. At this point, many of those recounting similar stories share suggestions regarding how the university should move forward given reduced support from the state. These suggestions are very helpful – and many have already been implemented. In this case, however, the former professor simply asked plaintively, “What are we going to do?”
The answer is simple: We are adapting and evolving. We will control our own destiny so we can continue our traditions of excellence, diversity and grassroots engagement. We will create new generations of proud memories.
We are creating a new model, and this process of adaptation and evolution has moved dramatically forward in the last three years. The need began with decades of reduced state support – the early 1990s, the 2007-13 period and the recent changes in capital funding – but it cannot end with our simple acceptance of the negative effects of lower state support.
Rather, we must move from being a university that depends solely on substantially reduced state support to being a university that is a public-private partnership. There is simply no other option: Our state appropriation is now less than 20 percent of the total budget of the university and its auxiliaries. If we relied only on state support, we would close.
So, what does it mean for San Diego State University to be a public-private partnership? This concept is well-understood for individual projects, such as a mixed residential and retail development in which a public university might provide land and a private entity constructs the development with the two parties sharing in the responsibilities and revenues.
Moving the entire university to a public-private partnership model goes far beyond this project-based approach. It means that the core financial model of the university is based on funds from both public and private sources. A university that is a public-private partnership affirms its relationship with the state and its public mission. It works collaboratively with elected officials to increase funding support for the university, as well as funding for need-based scholarships like Cal Grants. The university also recognizes and embraces the critical role of the federal government, both in funding research and in supporting student access through the Pell Grant program.
This type of university, however, differs from most traditional state-supported universities in California. Funds from private sources are combined with public funds to create a financial model that can support our academic and communal aspirations. These private sources include philanthropic support from alumni, community supporters and corporate partners. They also include tuition and fees paid by individual students and their families, from California and beyond. Revenues from auxiliary organizations, such as Aztec Shops, that provide services to students and community members also support the university’s academic mission, as do revenues from continuing education programs that operate without state support.
Our public-private partnership model has made dramatic progress, succeeding in two important ways. First, our private revenue initiatives have grown significantly. For example, our fundraising Campaign for SDSU raised a record $90 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Other revenue initiatives have also been successful, and combining these funds with public support has allowed us to make major investments in the academic and co-curricular programs identified in our strategic plan “Building on Excellence.”
We have hired faculty and staff and launched initiatives to support student success, such as the Commuter Center, the Pride Center, the Writing Center and the Honors College.
Second, and equally important, the public-private partnership model has allowed us to build on our campus traditions. While a commonly voiced fear is that reductions in state support and a movement to a public-private partnership model reduce our commitment to the socio-economic diversity of our students, this has not occurred. Financial aid allocations have increased by 67 percent in the five years from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and the proportion of enrolled students who face significant financial challenges (as measured by Pell Grant eligibility) was higher in 2013-14 than in 2009-10. Similarly, one might fear that the impact of reduced state support would reduce access to a degree. In fact, our six-year graduation rate in 2013 was more than 10 percent higher than our six-year graduation rate in 2007.
None of this is to say that the transition is complete or that a public-private model raises no quandaries. There are complex issues of policy and planning that must be resolved. Foremost among them are the complicated relationships that arise between the exercise of authority by the state, the CSU system and the university and the implicit and explicit accountability requirements of our private partners. Similarly, our reliance on multiple revenue streams substantially complicates all of our financial planning and risk mitigation efforts. There are many issues to be resolved, but we are on our way. We are already investing revenue from our new public-private financial model to support the excellence of our programs and the success of our students, faculty, staff and community.
No, things will never be the same. But if we do it right, we will, like prior generations, create proud memories that our community shares for decades to come.