For history professor Lisa Roberts, the commencement ceremonies at San Diego State University Saturday occurred in the shadow of two weeks of bittersweet emotions.
Roberts, who teaches history of science, was among a group of about 50 SDSU faculty members and supporters who picketed at the main entrance to the campus while seniors and graduate students prepared to get their degrees.
Subdued protesters, many dressed in graduation gowns, gathered in front of a grassy area decorated with mock tombstones adorned with the names of nine departments scheduled to be eliminated at SDSU because of the state's economic crisis.
The strains of Pomp and Circumstance wafted across the SDSU campus, sounding more like a funeral dirge to the students affected by the cuts and professors who will lose their jobs because of them.
Under normal circumstances, these past two weeks would have been a time of celebration for Roberts. After years of schooling and uncertain teaching jobs, she was finally granted tenure earlier this month. However, Roberts said she has had little time to enjoy her good fortune.
"Two weeks ago, I got a letter from (SDSU President Thomas) Day telling me that I was tenured. But as he was giving me tenure, he was also cutting departments and throwing many valuable and experienced professors out to the street. I really haven't felt like celebrating," Roberts said.
Citing the crippling effect of the recession on state revenues, Day recently announced plans to eliminate nine departments, sharply cut nine others and lay off 193 tenured and non-tenured teachers out of a total of about 1,400 at SDSU.
"If a combat unit took that amount of casualties, it would have to be pulled out of the line," said Francis Stites, who teaches constitutional history.
On Tuesday, Day proposed 10% pay cuts throughout the 20-campus California State University system to stave off the cuts scheduled for the fall at SDSU.
Roberts, who carried a picket sign, was protesting in support of SDSU colleagues who have been told to expect their pink slips next month. She stood next to Ron Himes, 52, a 23-year member of the anthropology department, which is scheduled to be eliminated.
Himes said he was still numb over the prospect of losing his job.
"I'm too old to retrain for anything else, and too young to live off my retirement benefits. I really don't know what I'm going to do . . . I can't really see myself as anything but a teacher. I had planned my entire life around teaching and the anthropology department," said Himes, who is single.
Himes and other fired professors said they had received no hint from Day and the administration that their departments and jobs were going to be eliminated. In his case, Himes said news about his job and department being cut "came as a bolt out of the blue."
He said the first sign he saw of impending doom was when he went to a department meeting on May 15 and found the secretary crying. The woman told Himes that "this time it's bad news."
"I'm still sorting it out. But I look at my students and tell myself that I did something good while I was here. I did something right that is going to help them in life. But the way things look for me, I probably won't have that opportunity again," Himes said.
However, professors are not the only ones affected by the proposed cuts. Hundreds of students won't be able to complete their studies at SDSU if their departments are eliminated. Ellen Swaim, a senior in the Families Studies Department, said three busloads of students and faculty members plan to travel to Sacramento in coming days to plead with legislators and the governor's office to find a solution for the campus' financial crisis.
Swaim, 36 and the mother of two sons, said students have gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition opposing the cuts and calling for a compromise solution. Despite the elimination of the Families Studies Department, Swaim is among a small number of students who have enough credits to graduate next December.
"President Day and his staff didn't plan this out. Their planning is a slash and burn policy," said Swaim.
Standing across Swaim was another fired teacher. The woman was wearing graduation robes and a placard that read: "English M.A. will work for food."