Saturday, April 03, 2010

Is HSU Cutting Its Future?

A satirist might look at what's currently going on at Humboldt State University and ask, is the university being murdered, or has it just been tricked into committing suicide?

The North Coast community as a whole seems unconcerned, and it is certainly uninvolved--even though anything serious that happens to HSU will have substantial and long-term effects on the economic and cultural life of the region.

Inside HSU the current round of "cost-cutting" is traumatic. The counselling center is doing big business, dealing not so much with the usual student or faculty problems, but with these traumas--the fired staff and senior staff leaving in droves, taking with them precious institutional memory; the students whose course choices are shrinking, the time necessary to fulfill degree requirements possibly getting longer and therefore more expensive, and/or facing the disappearance of their majors and the possible devaluing of their degree because of it, as well as the cutting of "electives" which often are the most valuable educational experiences of these student years; the prospects of faculty with roots in the community facing the possible choice of moving on or teaching something else, as well as the insecurity and the upsets associated with putting their names on the process of eliminating majors, programs and departments. And on and on.

The University has been bouncing this way and that for years, trying to respond to dictates of the CSU system (that could easily contradict each other from year to year) and the shrinking resources from the state. All the reasonable cuts have already been made, with the possible exception of higher level administrative posts and compensation. Now HSU careens into pretty fateful decisions, with implications for its identity (will it legitimately be able to continue calling itself a university?) and its viability in the academic marketplace--and therefore ultimately, its existence.

Today the Academic Senate deliberated the fates of programs named to be cut, through a murky process which purports to be objective, but which would be hard pressed to defend that claim. There's a certain futility in these painful deliberations, since the Senate makes no final decisions, and a certain cynicism in the administration giving the Senate this task. You want shared governance, faculty? Well, here it is. Either the Senate will start the bleeding, and the provost and president will complete it, thus leaving the co-opted faculty with blood on their hands, or the Senate will refuse, and the administration will sigh about the failure of shared governance, and use whatever hacksaw or scalpel they will.

Let's take the examples I know something about: all three of the graduate programs in the Theatre, Film & Dance department are on today's target list (and the department as a whole is on notice that it may be completely eliminated.) They are on the list because the committee that decided so says they aren't worth the approximately $160,000 they cost.

The problem is, the department can't figure out where that figure came from, and nobody will tell them. Their figures show no such savings. The savings of cutting the classes etc. involved in the program are more than offset by the loss of graduate students who do work necessary for productions--not only the department's, but anybody who uses the Van Duzer or Gist Theatre. Higher paid staff will have to be hired to do it--especially in view of state safety laws--and so eliminating these programs will cost more money than it saves--which doesn't even deal with the value of the programs to the department, the university and the community. There's hardly a theatre in the county that doesn't have an M.A. or MFA from HSU in its organization (usually at the top), or doesn't use HSU graduate students in its productions.

And then there's the Film program targeted for elimination--which will save exactly zero dollars, because there's nobody in the program now. However, there is a new graduate program being developed that has already raised foundation money and it happens to be the kind of program that is a natural for HSU to seize upon gratefully because it so clearly is a key to its future: it is program centered around science documentary filmmaking.

In that is the not very hidden lesson and ultimate danger: in slicing away at itself, HSU is killing its future. Some of what HSU has been doing the last few years makes sense in terms of its future: for instance, it is strengthening ties with alums and starting to realize that it can't count on state funding anymore for total financial support. It's going to have to act more like a private university, or the public-private hybrids like the University of Pittsburgh.

But most of all, it needs an identity, a vision of itself that serves as a guide for reorganizing its academic structure and offerings. Not a brand--that's just PR, that's easy, I could invent an attractive brand for HSU in my sleep--but a brand is unsustainable unless it matches a reality, even a reality-in-the-making, a real vision. Not another all inclusive and otherwise wobbly vision statement. A fully articulated and worked out vision. And the leadership to develop that vision and make it real.

Without that, it's stuck with this mess. The metaphors are multiple: slow-motion bloodbath of targets of opportunity, political assassinations, seeming surgical strikes that go wrong, with unintended consequences and collateral damage played out over years. I don't think anyone on the HSU campus would dispute that the university has already been wounded, and is in the process of inflicting more wounds on itself. The question is whether they are wounds that will heal, or is this the death of a thousand cuts?

And what kind of university will be left? Will it be able to even legitimately call itself a university? For one thing, I always though that if you don't offer graduate programs, you're a college, not a university.

Anyway, that's how it seems to me--though I am not a properly anointed expert. I hope some folks who are more directly involved are asking long-term questions, and that leaders of the local community inform themselves, and insist on being heard. Maybe all this is happening and I just haven't heard about it?

Update 4/4: First reports on what transpired at the Academic Senate meeting Saturday suggest that the process is indeed as self-destructive and unfair as the direst implications of this post suggest it might be. At this point I don't believe that anyone--in the administration or on the Senate--is operating either reasonably or in good faith. The game is rigged.

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