Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Near Death of Fresno State

Craig Bernthal

Fresno State came near to dying this spring. Had the Budget Task Force’s main recommendations succeeded—to join the School of Arts and Humanities to the School of Social Science, and to divvy up the College of Sciences and Mathematics among the FTES hungry colleges of Kremen, Lyles, and Agriculture—that would have been the end. And those two schools must have seemed like fat and easy targets. One had a dean probably nearing retirement, the other was without a dean at all. The faculty senate seemed to be asleep. The other deans were amenable to an FTES feed. The senate chair was acquiescent. The prospects for ramming through the mergers must have looked good.
The only thing that stopped it from happening was a big, fast developing faculty protest that took the administration by surprise. That protest was expressed in the Fresno Bee, in several meetings and forums, in the Academic Senate, by an emeriti group that met with President Welty, and in this blog. There may have been donor protest. (I don’t know about that, but I hope so.) The rebellion was strong in Arts and Humanities, Science and Mathematics, and Social Science. It was less strong, but not entirely absent, in the other schools and library.
            What would have been lost had the Task Force recommendations been allowed to pass by a sleeping faculty? The functioning liberal arts core of the university would be gone to the detriment of every department and every student at Fresno State. Art, music, and theater—the fine arts—require students to be taught in small studio classes. I cannot believe those curriculums would have survived the move in any but the most rudimentary form. Over time, they would have decayed. In English, literature would have withered while the department became a service writing department for the university. The re-housing of Mathematics to Engineering and Biology, Chemistry, and Geology to Agriculture would inevitably, over the course of time, have subordinated those disciplines to the applied sciences for which those colleges exist. They would have atrophied as they sank in subordinate service departments, their main duty being toward general education.
            In the early twentieth century, on a visit to the Soviet Union, physical chemist, crystallographer, and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi tried to tell Soviet scientists and administrators that their desire to subordinate science to applied science was bound to fail. Only in the free play of inquiry, regardless of utilitarian objectives, does major discovery occur. Scientific advancement relies on the free play of the imagination as much as do the arts. The applied sciences depend on the “pure” sciences, and the pure sciences depend upon curiosity and freedom of inquiry. History proved Polanyi right. Science in the Soviet Union foundered. In less spectacular fashion, the same thing would have happened here. Fresno State may not be comparable to a UC in its commitment to pure scientific research; nevertheless, people do pure research here and their departments are stronger because of it. The irony is that it makes them better service departments for engineering, agriculture, business, and other fields. Splitting up Science and Mathematics would have been bad even for the schools that stood in the short term to have their FTES problems solved. It would have been bad for the students.
            The wonder is that the administration of Fresno State is this devoid of sense or scruples. The Task Force proposals would never have seen the light of day had the Provost not wanted them to be adopted. The idea that an independent Task Force put these mergers before Provost Covino, who then went into deep thought about whether to adopt them, is an incredible fiction. The faculty was asked to believe in another stretcher: that these were budget proposals—that their adoption would save money. These consolidations more probably would have cost money.
            So what was the administration trying to accomplish? The reconfiguration of Fresno State as a complete “professional” school, dealing only in applied knowledge that leads directly to jobs? The elimination of a recalcitrant body of faculty through their dispersal? A more centralized structure that allowed the Provost great control of curriculum and instruction? For my money, all of the above, with the blessing of President Welty and Chancellor Reid. One can only wonder what education appears to be in the minds of these people. The loss to the culture of the Central Valley would have been huge.

             But the attempted Task Force coup was only the first chapter of how things played out this spring. As faculty began to examine the budget, and data slowly became available, we found that the carry-forward for the university last year was enormous: $65 million. To quote a previous blog;

Here are the carry-forward figures and the places where they can be found:

06-07: $28,834.038  See the 2007-08 Budget Book, p. 13.

07-08: $30,920,037 See the 2008-09 Budget Book, p. 13.

08-09: $27,314,040 See the 2009-10 Budget Book, p. 13

For the next two entries, no page numbers are available. Look under title "Expenditure Budget Summary" in the referenced Budget Books.

09-10: $44,035,938 See the 2010-11 Budget Book.

10-11: $65,806,057 See the 2011-12 Budget Book.

            We did not know about that $65 million while the Budget Task Force was meeting, while sections of 300 or more students were being offered, while student tuition was being raised, while department offices were running out of paper and paper-clips, urinals went unfixed, etc., etc. It is impossible to avoid the accusation of fraud and deception. The Budget Task Force was convened in an atmosphere of dire emergency, of a broken contract by the state. Well, we may have long-term problems, and carry-forwards may need to be larger than usual, but we had no emergency and the necessity for having a task force was a based on a lie.
            How can President Welty now go to the students with a straight face and tell them they ought to pay higher tuition, or go to the state legislature and say we need more money, or tell the faculty they have to sacrifice more, teach larger sections, and do with less funding for research? I am very curious about how he is going to handle this on March 22. To say the least, it presents a challenge in rhetoric.
Departments are now being asked to “spend down” 1.8 million dollars. Come up with proposals, is the Provost’s call. Just think what could have been done with that 1.8 million last fall. There is always some left over at the end of the year to spend, but 1.8 million?

            The only good news in this is that the faculty came alive. Important resolutions against the mergers were introduced into the senate, as were others re-affirming the importance of the University Budget Committee in faculty consultation. A faculty group formed in opposition to the mergers and top-down attempts to control curriculum and instruction. A vote on one of the senate resolutions, against cohort hiring, is still pending, and will be discussed on Monday. The Senate has to pass it if the faculty’s traditional duty to decide on curriculum and instruction is to be maintained.
            It has been an enlightening academic year and a profoundly depressing one. We have had a disquieting disclosure of the intentions of this administration and the methods it is willing to employ to get what it wants. I had hoped that the agenda of Provost Covino and that of President Welty would turn out to be different; I no longer hope for that, having no reason to believe it’s true.  I doubt that the administrative game plan has changed or that it will change in the future. It has merely suffered a temporary reversal in an attempt to turn Fresno State into a super-Phoenix or National. The faculty will have to battle this for years, until a more rational model of education finds its way to Long Beach. For now, it is critical that the faculty follow through in two ways: it needs to take a clear stand against the imposition of top-down cohort hiring, and it needs to get the best people it has into the Senate and on Senate committees. More on those issues tomorrow. 


  1. Yes but Chancellor Reed just won a big award for "Leadership Excellence." So he must be pleasing somebody! Who are these lobbyists and cockroaches that stand behind his administration? TIAA-CREF, a pension services organization. And we sure do have a big pension problem, I think.

  2. Great blog entry Craig! I certainly learned a lot. Your sure right about a depressing year. All of that wasted energy which only just got everybody upset, brought down morale of most of the university and students, gave the community a poor impression of how Fresno State's being run ... and in the end ... there's the usual monkey business with the bookeeping ... and it was all unnecessary. Is that 'evidence' of an administration that is doing a good job? I guess it is an inverse relationship in their topsy-turvy world where incompetence wins 'leadership in excellence' awards, and competency gets you demoted or fired I guess. Reminds me of a Buddhist quote that to cultivate the mind of enlightenment is to cultivate the 'straight-forward' mind. There does not appear to be an 'enlightened' administrative culture in the CSU, in that respect.