Fall 2011 Convocation Speech

"50th Anniversary — Challenges and Opportunities"
President Ruben Armiñana

President Ruben Arminana


Welcome to the fall semester of the 2011-12 academic year. I particularly want to welcome the new students, faculty and staff who have joined us for the first time. You have made a wise decision that will have a significant and positive impact upon the rest of your life. I am especially pleased to welcome the new Provost and Academic Vice President, Dr. Andrew Rogerson, who has come to us from California State University, Fresno where he was the Dean of Science and Mathematics. Andrew has been with us for only a month and I am delighted with his grasp of the issues facing the University and his positive attitude toward achieving excellence. There are two things that people have commented about him: one is that he, too, has an accent, Scottish brogue, described by some as “sexier than Ruben’s,” and second that his mode of transportation, motorcycles, occupies less space than mine.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of this University. In the fall of 1961, classes taught by 20 full-time faculty began for 274 students in leased buildings in Rohnert Park. On September 22, 1961, Chancellor Glenn Dumke presided over the formal dedication of Sonoma State College led by President Ambrose Nichols. It would take five years before the college moved to its present and permanent location on East Cotati Avenue with 1,425 students.

Much has happened during these 50 years. We now offer a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate programs to almost 8,400 students, many of them living on campus and coming from all over California and from other states and nations. We have a well-deserved reputation for excellence that makes us one of the most attractive campuses in the California State University. We are an integral part of the community that we serve well. And more importantly, every year we graduate more than 2,000 students who are well educated and prepared to meet the challenges of the economy and community. In other words, we fulfill our mission.

The road travelled during these past 50 years has gone through peaks and valleys with bumps and controversies along the way. Upon reflection, it is what is expected from the process of creating, building and transforming an academic institution especially during turbulent economic and social times. We reflect the tensions that exist in society and that change is hard and difficult. We have become a more mature institution proud of its past but focused on the future. We are a unique university characterized by being a comprehensive university with deep roots and commitment to the liberal arts and sciences education.

While Sonoma State University has had its share of economic difficulties created mostly by the enormous volatility of the support it receives from the State of California, I believe that this year is much more serious and injurious. Simply put, the consequences of neglect of higher education in California is having a highly detrimental effect for the present and future of this state and its people.

A recent report of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy of the California State University, Sacramento entitled “Consequences of Neglect: Performance Trends in California Higher Education,” (July 2011) points out that, “California lawmakers have found it increasingly difficult to protect the state’s investment in its colleges and universities over the last decade despite the growing evidence that the state needs far more of its citizens to earn postsecondary credentials.” Additionally it points out, “This report demonstrates the consequences of resting on reputations and policies of yesteryear. California is nowhere near a leader on the measures of higher education performance.” The report ascertains that “California ranks 50th among states in total funding per student.” Finally, it concludes that, “California must regain the purposeful approach to higher education that it modeled over 50 years ago with the Master Plan for Higher Education.”

Governor Jerry Brown signed an approved-by-Democrats-only budget after months of unsuccessful efforts to garner Republican legislative votes for the extension of three taxes. Despite the governor’s pledge to balance the budget without gimmicks, the adopted budget relies on a $4 billion windfall that seems less plausible after tax revenue results from last month. The budget, like many in the past, is loaded with shaky assumptions such as a multi-billion dollar raid on local redevelopment agencies which is being resisted in the courts; a $150 fee on rural homeowners for firefighting which is subject to a referendum; $200 million collection for sales taxes from internet sellers which most probably will be the subject of a negative proposition in the next election; and the reduction of medical services to the poor which needs a waiver from the Federal government. Columnist Dan Walters has commented that, “Brown did exactly what his most recent predecessors did when faced with an unbalanced budget—closed the gap with gimmicks that he knew would likely fall apart. Or as former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of saying, he merely kicked the can down the road.” (Sacramento Bee, August 10, 2011)

From its beginning draft, the 2011-12 budget contained a $500 million reduction to both the CSU and UC. Despite the efforts of many people to have the Legislature and the Governor consider higher education an investment priority and reduce the size of the cuts, this enormous amount did not change during the budget process. As a matter of fact, when the extension of taxes collapsed, the cuts increased by $150 million for a total of $650 million for the CSU—and the same amount for the UC. This is a 23% reduction in support from the previous fiscal year. Like some of you, I also heard many words of support for higher education and the students from our representatives at the Capitol but when it came time? to vote for these devastating cuts, the good words evaporated.

The $500 million cut to the CSU meant a 2.4% reduction in enrollment targets, denying access to 10,000 qualified students and a 10% fee increase. The rest of the cuts and mandatory costs were passed directly to the campuses, meaning $8.9 million for Sonoma State University, or 16% of our previous General Fund allocation. The additional reduction of $150 million to the CSU resulted in a second tuition increase of 12% more or an additional $294 per semester. One-third of all fee increases is set aside for financial aid which allows our neediest students, about 40% of all the students, to not see an increase in their tuition costs.

These cuts mean that the students are paying more for less as we have had to cut classes, make classes larger, and re-structure services at all levels of the University. In many instances we have eliminated vacant positions and are not replacing employees who leave due to retirement or another job action. We are in the process of making difficult administrative reorganizations and consolidations outside Academic Affairs that are needed to save money and to prevent layoffs of permanent employees. All expenses are scrutinized since we have so much less funding to do what we need and should do. The sacrifices that we are asking of all employees are significant and much appreciated. Despite all of these measures, we have hired 14 new tenure-track faculty who will be introduced later.

Our enrollment target for this year is 7,450 FTES for California residents and we are confident that we will meet or even exceed it by a little. Our freshmen class is the largest in our history with about 1,800 students. We are a very popular campus and the number of applications exceeds 10 for each available spot. As per the instructions from the Chancellor’s Office we are accepting applications for the spring semester especially those from the local community colleges.

I mentioned earlier that the final approved budget included a series of triggers to be pulled if additional revenues do not materialize. For the CSU it means another $100 million cut in mid-year if the additional revenues fall short of $1-$2 billion. This major reduction seems highly probable since the July tax revenues fell $539 million below projections. Personal income, sales and corporate taxes were 10% below projections and the recent news of the slow economic recovery, continued high unemployment, economic stresses in many European countries, and the recent volatility of the stock market give further concern about the economic deterioration affecting California whose revenues rely so heavily on income and capital gains taxes from the wealthy. I am increasingly pessimistic that the trigger will be pulled and SSU’s share of the CSU’s $100 million is about $2.3 million, an amount very difficult to generate from further local savings beginning in January and for only six months. As I told a fellow CSU president and he concurred, “Our backs are against the wall without a millimeter to spare.”

Despite the challenges we confront on our 50th anniversary there is much good to celebrate. Foremost is our faculty, staff and administration’s commitment to our students and their education. We are good at providing an excellent education that makes our graduates most competitive for the world of graduate and professional education and work. We involve our students in research as evidenced in two recently announced grants in the School of Science and Technology: one for almost $1 million for five years to improve the long-term retention rates of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by providing inquiry-based educational experiences for them; and a $300,000 NSF major research instrumentation grant to bring a high-power nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer to enhance the study of the physical and chemical properties of molecules. Examples like these are available in each of our schools.

We have admitted the largest EOP cohort in our history, 250. The Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall at the Green Music Center will be completed by the end of this year and the Center’s lawn next year. Construction of the student center begins this academic year. There are so many achievements that it will take all morning to name them, but each and every one is important and essential in meeting our mission.

As we enter our next decade Sonoma State University continues to be a work in progress; that is what education means: a process of continued learning, discovery, growth, and transformation. We should keep honing our particular identity, the combination of the characteristics of a comprehensive university with the emphasis in the liberal arts and sciences education. The challenges are significant but the prospects for a distinguished future based on the excellence of education are even greater.

Best wishes for this new semester.