CSUF's Somber Celebration : Education: Amid anguish over layoffs, Milton Gordon is formally invested as the university's fourth president after two years in the job.


Milton A. Gordon was formally invested Friday as the fourth president of Cal State Fullerton while more than three dozen university employees held banners in silent protest over the worst layoffs in campus history.

The solemn ritual, which has its roots in centuries-old academic tradition, was the most austere in the history of the 33-year-old university. And it was a ceremony that the 57-year-old Gordon decided he could no longer put off after two years as president of the 25,000-student university.

But the protesters--about 40 members of various campus unions--complained that even a minimalist celebration sends the wrong message during a time of financial crisis and layoffs.

"Invest in Education, Not Ceremonies," read a long banner held up by more than a dozen protesters, including some employees who were laid off.

"It's not the time to party," said an admissions office evaluator who was laid off Aug. 20. "I hope some of these people get that message," added the 30-year-old woman from Anaheim who declined to give her name because of a grievance pending against the university over her layoff.

The placard-carrying workers were poised strategically near the path that Gordon, California State University Chancellor Barry Munitz and other dignitaries would take to a rented stage lined only with potted white chrysanthemums. The investiture and luncheon cost about $12,000 in private donations.

The presence of the protesters, who were not joined by any faculty members, only contributed to the somberness of the occasion at a university battered by cuts of more than $25 million and the elimination of hundreds of classes over the last two years.

After the hourlong ceremony, Gordon said of the protesters: "I totally understand their frustration."

He added that he was deeply troubled about having to issue layoff notices to more than 40 people last summer.

"I had to make the worst decision in my professional career," he said. "But we are trying to bring people back as quickly as we can."

About half the people who received layoff notices have since been recalled to work, due to openings created by some early retirements and other funds doled out to the CSU campuses by the chancellor's office.

Gordon was named president of Cal State Fullerton in 1990, succeeding on Aug. 9 of that year the university's third president, Jewel Plummer Cobb, who retired at the age of 65.

A mathematics professor who rose through the ranks to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Chicago State University, the Chicago native came to California in 1986 as vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State University, one of 19 sister campuses to Fullerton.

From virtually the day he arrived on the campus in north Orange County, Gordon faced cuts in state operating funds. That first fall, he and his top administrators struggled to cut $5 million out of a budget for the 1990-91 school year.

By the fall of 1991, the university was struggling to trim another $16 million out of its projected $125-million operating budget, slicing more than 200 classes, restricting the number of units students could carry, and in many cases doubling and trebling class sizes. This year's state budget deficit translated to a campus budget of about $100 million, about $9 million less than the university received in state operating funds the previous academic year.

Academic Senate Chair Joyce Flocken alluded to the pain of the successive wave of budget cuts--and the nearby protesters--in a speech during the investiture ceremony.

"Our students are paying higher fees, our faculty are teaching more classes, our staff members are being dislocated. And yes, some are being laid off," said the longtime speech communications professor. "Yet we gather together today to celebrate and some ask why."

The answer, Flocken told the assembled crowd of more than 300 faculty, administrators, students and civic leaders, is that it is a "celebration of excellence, a celebration of education."

"Finally, we gather here to invest in our human resources--to invest in Milt Gordon . . . so we can triumph over today's adversities," she said. "For tomorrow will surely come, and our sacrifices and investments today will resonate in our graduates of tomorrow."

Gordon, who seldom smiled during the hourlong ceremony, also referred to the troubles facing his campus in a speech more often dominated by his vision of a better future. But he had a more positive spin.

"I believe the current crisis in financial resources is not without its benefits," he said. "A crisis forces all of us to think of creative and innovative solutions to our problems."

And he called upon the entire campus and community of supporters to work toward the common goal of building an excellent university.

"Only as a family, working together, can we bring a critical mass of ideas and actions to bear on the great issues facing this university, the communities we serve and this state," Gordon said.

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