Today, I approved the University Senate’s recommendation that we create an Honors College at San Diego State University. As I signed, I had a cascade of visions and thoughts of our university’s history and aspirations. I saw the familiar photograph of young men and women, enrolled at the San Diego Normal School, sitting in a circle on the beach studying – the men in suits and the women in their Victorian-era long dresses. I saw students, faculty and staff members moving furniture and books as we established our current campus on Montezuma Mesa at the height of the Great Depression in 1931. These visions were woven together with an appreciation for the efforts of the administrators, faculty, staff and students who led us to the university status (and current name) that we attained in 1974 and for those efforts in the ensuing 40 years that have led to progress on every significant measure of academic excellence. The establishment of the Honors College builds seamlessly on this tradition of aspiration and academic excellence. It will improve our honors education experience, help recruit academically strong students and raise the profile of our culture of achievement. Looking to the future, the Honors College will support a large, diverse group of high-achieving students who benefit from its focus on inquiry, engagement, and interdisciplinary problem-solving. These students will, through their campus leadership roles and their participation in the broader intellectual life of the university, strengthen our campus culture and lay the foundation for even greater academic aspirations. The Honors College is, however, about much more than aspiration and academic excellence. It is also about building a community, a gathering place, for a diverse group of students within a larger university. In this regard, the establishment of the Honors College is a part of our ongoing efforts to create smaller communities of place and purpose that support student success. Among other important efforts to bring together members of our community are the Aztec Mentor Program, the Aztec Scholars Program, the Commuter Resource Center, the Price Community Scholars Program, the Pride Center, new residential learning communities, the Writing Center and the Zahn Innovation Center. In this regard, our aspirations for excellence support the very fabric of our community. This thread, above all else, ties together our past, our present and our future.
In the “Master Plan for California Higher Education: 1960-1975” and the associated Donahoe Higher Education Act, Californians created an ambitious framework for public higher education in the state. A central tenet was that the state would support educational programs, while student fees would support services such as housing, food and recreation. The critical implication was that California residents would not pay tuition for educational programs.
Practical problems confronted this framework from the start, and they continue to this day. Understanding these challenges provides perspectives that help us understand the role of tuition and fees at San Diego State today.
First, it was not possible to implement the Master Plan’s no-tuition policy. Rather, tuition and fees were characterized by a staircase pattern in which they did not increase for an extended time (reinforcing the view that there should be no tuition or at least no tuition increases) and then rose dramatically (raising ire that the promise of no tuition had been betrayed). This happened multiple times. For example, from 1975-1980, tuition and fees at my alma mater of UCLA increased from $600 to $685, an average modest increase of 3 percent per year. However, from 1980 to 1985 tuition and fees increased from $719 to $1,245, an average increase of 15 percent per year. An identical pattern occurred from 1995 to 2005, when tuition and fees actually decreased an average of 2 percent annually from 1995 to 2000, only to increase a dramatic 16 percent annually between 2000 and 2005.
Second, the fundamental distinction between educational programs and ancillary services slowly, but inexorably, eroded. This challenge was clear at the outset when course materials, such as laboratory pipettes, were excluded from state funding although they were clearly necessary to the educational program. Technological and academic innovations, such as increasingly powerful and sophisticated computers and Internet connectivity, exacerbated the challenge. A variety of technology and “instructionally related activity fees” were created across the California State University to support these and other academic program needs.
In 2011, former CSU Chancellor Charles Reed issued Executive Order 1054 to provide a rational structure to understand the “share of the educational costs to be assumed by students and their families,” as well as the putative “state’s fiscal responsibility for providing funding for student access.” The Executive Order codifies five different categories of fees. Within these, Category I fees are “systemwide mandatory tuition fees” under control of the CSU Board of Trustees. Category II fees are “campus mandatory fees,” and each campus president is responsible for ensuring a consultative process prior to the chancellor’s approval of a Category II campus fee. The president must establish a Campus-Fee Advisory Committee with substantial student representation that includes the democratically elected student body president. The university president must seek the recommendation of this committee prior to making any recommendation to the chancellor. To gather student input, the committee may use a referendum or an alternative consultation process that includes campuswide distribution of information and outreach.
Recently, I forwarded, and Chancellor Timothy White approved, a Category II student success fee. The motivation for this fee, as with most of the fees since the Master Plan’s adoption, stems from limited resources. Between 2007 and 2011, San Diego State’s state appropriation decreased from $221 million to $103 million. Since 2011, our state appropriation has increased to $143 million, and we are grateful for this renewed support. Nonetheless, our state support is still $78 million, or 35 percent, below its 2007 level. We have addressed this challenge by seeking cost efficiencies and increasing revenues from diverse sources, including private fundraising, non-resident student tuition and our auxiliary organizations.
Our new strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” recommends the university “work collaboratively with Associated Students to establish a university excellence fee.” This process began this fall. Following initial meetings and student surveys, the Campus-Fee Advisory Committee recommended that we consider a student success fee through alternative consultation. Ninety percent of the revenues from this fee would support the hiring of tenure-track faculty and the addition of course sections. The remaining 10 percent would support co-curricular academic opportunities for students. The committee’s rationale for using alternative consultation, in contrast to a referendum, was that the complexity of evaluating the proposed fee required a full exposition of the benefits and costs of the fee rather than a simple solicitation of a “yes” or “no” vote. I concurred with the recommendation.
The advisory committee – which has a majority student membership – created information materials and worked with faculty, staff and administrators to host 39 public forums for a broad range of student groups and the University Senate. They also distributed a variety of letters, pamphlets and videos to inform the campus of the alternative consultation process and to encourage attendance at the public forums. At the conclusion of each forum, students in attendance were asked whether they endorsed a fee and, if so, at what level – $200, $300, $400, or $500 per semester. Over 1,000 students attended forums, and feedback forms were received from 1,015 students. Of those, 64 percent voted for a fee of $200 or more. The average fee recommended was $318 per semester. Following consideration of this input, the committee voted 12-0 (with one abstention) to recommend a $200 fee per semester. Although the primary purpose of the fee is to support the hiring of tenure-track faculty members, the Staff Affairs Committee also supported the fee. The primary rationale for these votes was that the benefit to students of additional faculty members and co-curricular opportunities outweighed the costs.
The advisory committee members were both sensitive to, and mindful of, the traditions of excellence and access that stem from the Master Plan and have greatly benefited California. Two important steps were taken to help students whose ability to enroll at SDSU might be impacted by increased fees. The fee increase will be implemented over a four-year period. For next semester, tuition and fees will increase by $50 – less than a 1.5 percent increase given our current semester cost of $3,383 for tuition and fees. In addition, we are creating a hardship fund for the coming year in collaboration with Associated Students – to ensure that no student has to leave San Diego State due to increased fees. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships will implement a “hardship exception” process, and non-state funds will be used to cover the fee for any students for whom the fee constitutes an undue hardship. Moving forward, the Division of Academic Affairs will conduct student surveys and interviews on curricular and co-curricular needs that will guide and inform how the fee money is spent. The Campus-Fee Advisory Committee will develop guidelines for the co-curricular process.
Our campus has had a robust discussion on the student success fee and many of the historical and policy issues that still arise from the Master Plan. Three principles should guide our future discussions.
First, we must continue to ensure that students from all backgrounds have access to California’s universities. San Diego State is a national leader in ensuring that students from all economic backgrounds succeed academically. We will continue to lead because this tenet is essential to the success of our society.
Second, we must recognize that the financing model can, and must, differ for students with different financial resources. Some students and their families will finance their own educations. Other students will rely on private scholarships. Still others will use a mix of private scholarships, government scholarships and loans. A variety of models are possible and beneficial.
Third, there must be continued support for, and increases of, Pell grant and CAL grant scholarship programs from the federal and state governments. Support of, and increased funding for, these programs will ensure the viability of a variety of financing models, as well as the rich socioeconomic diversity of our university.
There is, of course, a sense of sadness that the aspirational framework of the Master Plan faces continuing challenges. The spirit of California is, however, innovative, and the same spirit that crafted the Master Plan can pursue new approaches.
Let’s move forward. There is much to do.
February 5th was an extraordinary day at SDSU. We began the day by announcing Conrad Prebys’ $20 million gift to support student scholarships and naming our new Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union. I ended the day at the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center with a group of the university’s dedicated supporters, watching the fifth-ranked Aztecs men’s basketball team come from behind to beat Boise State in the closing seconds. As we rolled out of the parking lot, I asked my wife if we should stop to buy lottery tickets. It had been a great day, and I was feeling very lucky.
Our fundraising and athletic successes are just two reasons why it is a great time to be an Aztec. Due to the dedicated efforts of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community supporters, we are enjoying enormous success – a record number of applications, academic success and increased graduation rates for students from all backgrounds, important research discoveries, the power and strength of a diverse student body, international programs that have resulted in a record number of Fulbright fellows, national recognition in college rankings, and new initiatives in the arts, where our programs have a tradition of excellence. In the past two years alone, Aztecs have won an Oscar, a Grammy and 12 regional Emmys. These accomplishments, and many more, are built on and bring to fruition 116 years of dedicated service by the members of our community.
The university, of course, is not perfect, and we do face significant challenges. Since 2007, we have faced a transition in higher education with reduced state funding for our operations and our facilities. This has resulted in lower faculty and staff levels and affected our facilities. Our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” recognizes that we must address these issues to ensure the university’s long-term success. We have taken significant steps through the strategic plan toward achieving these objectives, and there is more work to be done in the coming year.
In meeting these challenges, our traditions and history serve us well. We have faced many difficulties and, each time, we have moved our campus forward. In 1930-31, amidst the enormous uncertainties of the Great Depression, we moved our campus to Montezuma Mesa and laid the cornerstone of Hepner Hall. In 2011, our students, facing the deepest recession in U.S. history, followed in this tradition and began construction on the new Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union. Each of us knows of many, many more examples in which the vision, dedication and investment of the members of our community helped us overcome challenges and create something special.
This Aztec Spirit – this commitment to advancing our campus – is why we will meet our current challenges and achieve even greater success. This, above all, is why it is – and always will be – a great time to be an Aztec.
Dr. King envisioned the conception of community we embrace today – a conception in which each individual is tied to all others. As he said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.” Moreover, Dr. King emphasized that not only are we tied to each other, but each individual’s development depends on their engagement with, and support of, the broader community. – “An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” (Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Ala., Aug. 11, 1957)
Following in this tradition, strengthening “Community and Communication” is a central theme of our new strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” Guided by our plan, we are rededicating ourselves to the ideal and importance of community – to the ideal that shared values and shared experiences matter and to the recognition that accomplishing our missions of education, research and service depends on our communal efforts.
Initiatives in the plan will enhance our shared experiences, create smaller communities of support within the larger university and build our relationships with the broader San Diego community. While space limits preclude a full listing of our initiatives, important steps we took this fall include a focus on the recruitment and retention of under-represented students, raising the profile of the arts on campus, celebrating the accomplishments of our faculty and staff, and launching the Pride Center with resources for our LGBT community – all efforts that strengthen our community.
This spring, another very important step will be the opening of the new Aztec Student Union. The student union embodies our aspirations to build a stronger community; it will be a gathering place for decades. The union opens on Jan. 22, and we will have our grand opening events in early March. These events will celebrate the vision of our students, the skills of the men and women who constructed the center and the strength of our community.
It is altogether fitting that as we celebrate community this spring, we will also be commemorating and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic visit to our campus. I hope that each and every member of our community will join us for these celebrations.
This semester, we began implementing our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” Given the importance of broad involvement in the plan’s implementation, I have spent much of the semester discussing the plan with groups of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community supporters. One of the most common questions I receive is “Why have a plan?” or, alternately, “What is the purpose of the strategic plan?”
One answer is a general rationale for strategic planning at a large university, and the second is more specific to contemporary challenges that are restructuring higher education.
Universities are large and complex. There are academic departments, student groups, mechanisms for shared governance, administrative departments, co-curricular programs, auxiliary organizations, alumni organizations, and community supporters, among other groups. A strategic plan enables us to bring all of these resources together, both to capitalize on the opportunities available and to meet the challenges we face. It allows us to identify priorities and to work collectively to accomplish them. In short, it allows us to focus our resources – both human and financial – for results.
In “Building on Excellence,” we identified our central priorities as enhancing student success, research and creative endeavors, and community and communication. For each priority, the plan has identified a set of initiatives to advance the area, as well as relevant measures of progress. Working groups have been formed to help implement the specific initiatives. Moreover, the plan set out revenue initiatives with specific metrics to ensure that we will have the financial resources necessary to invest in our initiatives. The plan’s implementation is off to a good start, and our initial set of investments are described on the strategic planning website.
The rationale for our plan, however, goes well beyond simply enhancing focus and achieving priorities in today’s environment. Public higher education, as an entity, is being restructured. This restructuring is occurring because states have dramatically reduced their investments in higher education and many families face significant financial challenges due to the extended recession and uneven economic recovery. These resource limitations are dramatically enhancing competition between universities and, in some cases, will threaten the very form and existence of individual colleges and universities. Our goal in this highly competitive environment is not just to survive, but to thrive. By providing a roadmap to maintain and enhance the quality of our programs, our new strategic plan ensures that San Diego State will continue to advance in this challenging time.
While our challenges are significant, the communal discussions we have undertaken this fall have sharpened our focus and enhanced our capacity for collective action. This collective action will allow us to advance our initiatives, to accomplish our priorities and, ultimately, to serve our students, faculty, staff, alumni and the broader community. I look forward to reporting on this year’s accomplishments related to the strategic plan, as well as plans for the succeeding year, at the conclusion of the spring semester.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the academic year has its own unique seasons and rhythms. At the beginning of October, the admissions process begins and another notable period, the rankings season, ends – and it has been quite a rankings season for San Diego State University.
Most notably, U.S. News and World Report named us to its list of top “Up-and-Coming Schools.” We were ranked #14 nationally on the list of universities “making the most promising and innovative changes in the areas of academics, faculty and student life.” In an analysis of this year’s rankings, the Washington Post reported that we have increased our overall ranking the most of any university in the country since 2011 (31 places).
Other rankings also recognized our efforts. For example, Washington Monthly ranked us #6 nationally for the economic value of our degrees. Similarly, individual programs and colleges were also recognized in national rankings. Our International Business program was ranked #8 in the nation by U.S. News, and our College of Engineering was ranked #15 in a national survey of the economic value of engineering degrees.
This national recognition is a testament to the dedication and passion of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community supporters. By highlighting the university’s excellence, it will attract new students and add value to the degrees of our current students and alumni. These distinctions are especially noteworthy given the significant challenges that are transforming public higher education in California, and they occasion many questions. The two I get most frequently are “Do rankings matter?” and “How did we move up?”
My answer to the question of whether rankings matter is a decided “yes.” Put directly, rankings reflect (and create) prestige – a reputation based on achievement and success – and achievement and success matter to students, their families, our alumni and prospective employers. The rankings are especially important for students and their families who are not familiar with the university. Colleges and universities are complex, hard-to-understand places, and attending a college or university requires a very significant investment of time and money. The rankings try to help students and their families understand the investment they are about to make. No ranking can fully characterize an individual university or quantify the match between the needs of an individual student and the strength of a specific university, but students and their families find the rankings to be a useful starting point.
The question of why we have moved up in various rankings has been analyzed in detail by Business Insider. Three factors were cited as critical: our campuswide efforts to support student success that improved our retention and graduation rates, the growth of our research efforts and their overall impact on our academic programs, and the success of our first comprehensive fundraising campaign which has raised over $425 million to date. Each of these factors has contributed directly to metrics used in rankings and, indirectly, to the overall reputation of our university.
There is, however, more to it. Underlying each individual factor is something more fundamental – a spirit of innovation that aspires to make our university better and always seems to find a way to do so. It is this spirit of innovation that underlies our efforts to improve student success, advance research and build our culture of philanthropy. This same spirit – this can-do attitude – motivates the ambitious initiatives proposed in our recently completed strategic plan “Building on Excellence,” and I am certain that it will propel us forward as we pursue these initiatives and advance our university.
On Sunday, I attended a memorial service for Professor Emeritus Henry Janssen. During his 60 years at San Diego State, Henry taught and learned from thousands of students, envisioned and created an honors community, and invested in our university in countless ways. Henry received teaching awards, the Outstanding Faculty Award, the Mortarboard service award, a Monty and the Presidential Medallion, which I was honored to convey to him. Our “last lecture” series is named after Henry. This recitation of awards does not, however, do justice to Henry’s profound influence.
Henry grew up on a small farm outside of Lyons, Kan., during the years of the Dust Bowl – years that sorely tested America’s farming families and communities. A member of a small close-knit community, his intellectual abilities – particularly his voracious reading – were recognized and supported early in life. He attended the University of Oklahoma during the Depression and, during this period, his lifelong frugality developed further. Henry went on to serve in the military in World War II. During his Army training, he married Marge Trent, and their marriage lasted 59 years. Supported by the GI Bill, Henry earned a Ph.D. at Cal and, in 1953, joined what was then known as San Diego State College. On Sunday, we celebrated his 60 years of service at San Diego State.
Even in broad outline, Henry’s life is extraordinary, but there was so much more to Henry. For me, his infectious spirit, his love of life, his (often times risqué) wit, stood out. Henry told me a number of jokes over the last two years and, invariably, their content prohibited me from ever repeating them. I can, however, share one story that reflects Henry’s spirit. When they were boys, Henry and his brother, Jack, would entertain neighbors with a trapeze act in the loft of their barn. In the finale, Henry would release from the trapeze, fly over the heads of the audience, and out the door of the loft. Henry recounted that he enjoyed hearing the gasps of the audience as he flew out the loft door, knowing that a well-stocked hay wagon waited below to cushion his fall.
This story also reflects Henry’s focus on community – a fundamental aspect of his life and legacy. Whether he was entertaining his many friends, teaching and learning with students, advocating for the Honors College, or visiting with alumni, Henry was building community. He was building community and supporting others. This was a central theme of his life and a powerful part of his legacy.
We live in a time of great disruption in higher education, and many question the fundamental purposes and practices of our university. In this environment, Henry’s life and legacy remind us that the fundamental tie between a supportive community and the personal, intellectual, professional and moral development of the community’s members is the essence of all great universities.
Henry understood that it was critical to create small communities within our larger campus, and this is what he did for 60 years at San Diego State. He created communities of learning, of mutual support, of humor (and some mischief), and, like the Greek city-states he admired, communities of moral purpose – communities that asked questions about what it means to be a good person and a contributing member of society.
Henry’s last act was to donate $1 million to support the development of our Honors Program into an Honors College. Through his support, we will continue to develop as the community that Henry admired and inspired. I hope that each member of our community, as their means and capacity permits, will join Henry in supporting our Honors College. (Click here to support the Honors College.)
This year, for the first time in over 60 years, Henry will not be with us on campus this fall. His spirit – a spirit focused on excellence and inquiry and moral purpose, with just a touch of mischief – will, however, be with us.
For this, Henry’s most lasting gift, we are all deeply, deeply grateful.