New CSU Board Chief Assesses Ailing System : Higher education: Anthony M. Vitti of Emerald Bay says maintaining the quality of the institution while coping with dwindling state funds is the immediate concern.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Preserving access for minority students, increasing partnerships with the corporate world and gaining greater autonomy for the California State University system are top priorities for Orange County entrepreneur Anthony M. Vitti, the newly elected chairman of the CSU Board of Trustees.

But with the 20-campus system projected to receive at least $116 million less than last year in the state budget scramble, Vitti and fellow trustees have more immediate problems. The CSU has already sent layoff notices to 2,200 faculty and staff. Many of the universities are making deep cuts in classes, and some will turn away students in the coming academic year.

As the budget ax looms in Sacramento, Vitti said one of the primary concerns of the 24-member Board of Trustees is to preserve access to the university for low-income and minority students.

"It frightens me that in times like we're faced with presently, times that have reflected themselves in the outburst we saw in Los Angeles not too long ago, that we are taking away one of the vital, real opportunities to satisfy that dream . . . because of the absence of funds."

More important than access is quality--in the faculty, in the courses and in the campuses themselves, "because access to a second-rate institution is meaningless," said Vitti, an Emerald Bay resident and president of an international trading company. "That would be the worst of all atrocities."

A former Orange County campaign finance chairman for then-Gov. George Deukmejian, Vitti was first appointed to the board in 1989. In an interview with Times reporter Kristina Lindgren, Vitti discussed the challenges and uncertainties ahead for an institution he called "one of the greatest experiments in education in the history of the world."

Question:

Legislative leaders propose a 7% cut in the $1.6-billion CSU budget. Gov. Pete Wilson wants a 10.3% cut. What will these cuts mean for students and faculty?

Answer:

We are relying on each of the 20 institutions and their leadership to designate where those cuts will take place. Obviously, we've seen the differences in terms of what one campus is doing as compared to another with respect to cuts.

Our goal is to try to maintain certainly the quality of the institution, while at the same time allowing for access to the students. But as we get into the double-digit area (of cuts), we'll be forced into deeper cuts and more immediate cuts. . . . It would affect every aspect of the institution. If we're confronted with almost an 11% cut, that is going to translate into program cuts. . . . As programs are cut . . . it's a natural result that enrollment goes down.

I think we could be looking at as many as 30,000 to 50,000 fewer students.

Q: What would you say to students who are fearful about how these budget cuts may impact them?

A: I would tell them there will be a lot of thought put into how to accommodate them so that they can complete their majors and so their majors don't disappear overnight. . . . There will be a lot of guidance and thought put into how to help those people complete their course of study.

Q: Will it take longer for the average student to graduate?

A: It's definitely going to take more time, just from the lack of available classes. . . . It takes about 5 1/2 years right now to graduate. I think the question is, are we going to seven years?

Q: As a businessman, do you think the CSU is operating as efficiently as it can be?

A: We have been cut so dramatically that quite frankly I can't imagine there is any fat left. . . . I really don't think with the budget we're now dealing with you can educate the numbers of students we're talking about and say that there is still fat. It's just not there. There aren't any excesses.

Q: Has the CSU in your view tried to do too much, tried to offer too many new programs and as a result, spread itself too thin?

A: I don't think you would find that CSU has lived high on the hog. I think that you will find the cost of educating a student in the CSU system is well below the national average. . . . There can't be a great deal of waste if that is the case.

Q: Under the state's Master Plan for Higher Education, the CSU system now is supposed to take the top 33% of high school graduates. Can the CSU continue to accept that percentage?

A: No, and that's key. If we are not given adequate funds next year, or within a reasonably short period of time, which is highly unlikely, we cannot meet that target."

We are in an economic decline, and obviously, that is at the source of this problem. That situation isn't likely to change quickly. . . . We have to ask ourselves, ask the Legislature, and ask the governor: What is the mission of the CSU in light of these economic conditions? We obviously cannot continue to satisfy the mission of the CSU as it was described in the master plan with these economic constraints.

Q: As the number of students served drops, will low-income and minority students still have access to the CSU?

A: Access is something you will find is seen as a cherished, guarded mission throughout the administration and the Board of Trustees. Access is impacted by fees, access is impacted by availability of the classrooms and classes. That mission (to provide access) becomes more difficult when you don't have the funds. That is a quandary we're in right now.

Whatever we do, if it becomes necessary to redefine the mission of CSU, access is something we'll all be striving to preserve.

Q: Over the last decade, CSU's share of the state budget has shrunk. Has the CSU diminished as a state spending priority?

A: If you go back 10 years, you'll find that our share of the funds available in the state budget was about 4.69%. It has shrunk now to below 3% under the proposed budget cuts. . . .

When people look at what's happening to education and its overall budget, it's pretty difficult not to realize what this does--in terms of tearing at the heart of the CSU. And what impact that has on the population of this state, and on the business climate of this state.

Q: What is the impact on business?

A: First of all, we talk about 50,000 students losing access to the system. That 50,000 students certainly translates into numerous opportunities in the workplace. We provide an attractive labor pool for business. . . .

I get letters daily from people who are very concerned and who are impacted as a result of program cuts--from the health industry to agriculture. I'm talking about people who feel their industry and their companies will be impacted significantly by the cuts that are taking place, the people they won't be able to hire.

Q: Could that ultimately help to drag out this recession?

A: Without question. . . . Let's say we are given cuts of double-digit range this year and we, through the leadership on each campus, initiate the necessary cuts and cost savings. Then suddenly 12 months from now, things have turned around and we are right back to where we were two or three years ago in terms of funding.

You cannot automatically turn on the switch in an educational institution and go back to where you were. It doesn't work that way. We have lost a base of professors. We have lost support staff right down the line. You can't replace these people overnight. . . . And we won't be putting out the number of engineers and teachers the economy needs.

If we were to come out of this economic downturn tomorrow, what has been suffered . . . will be felt for many, many years to come.

Q: The CSU trustees have approved a controversial 40% fee increase for the fall semester but it has not been imposed yet. Will it be?

A: It looks like there is a good chance the Legislature will approve it. I think everybody realizes the gravity of the situation.

But let me say that even with that increase, we as a public institution of higher learning are still the second lowest system from a fee standpoint in the country. . . . With the 40% increase, we'll still be in the mid-$1,300s (in costs) for a year. . . .

Q: CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz and the Board of Trustees are proposing more autonomy from legislative review, especially in budgetary matters. Why?

A: This is vitally important. Having the Legislature define line item by line item what our budget is, well, in an institution this complex, it is important that we have the ability to decide that. . . .

The (University of California) has that power constitutionally. We do not. . . . As our budget is tightened . . . it becomes very important that we have flexibility to deal with our own budget and to allocate funds.

Q: You have talked about ventures with private business as a way of raising money for the university. What do you have in mind?

A: We've had successful experiments with that at campuses like Fullerton, with the Marriott Hotel. They built the hotel on school land and that has created a revenue source for other purposes on the campus. This is something we need to look at very seriously.

I've gotten phone calls from members of the private sector who have expressed an interest in certain aspects of the university, including setting up planning centers. I even had someone call me about using excess land to put up a driving range on a campus. I was quite surprised at the amount of money a driving range could generate. . . .

Now I'm not saying I'm in favor of putting driving ranges on our campuses, but there are creative people out there who might offer some solutions or some creative approaches to revenue-producing businesses that are compatible with the university and its statutes.

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