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Faculty Rift Is Over, but San Diego State’s Day Still Faces Doubts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is an uneasy calm these days at San Diego State University, the largest, possibly the most prestigious and certainly in the past year the angriest campus in the Cal State system.

The faculty, recovering from a bare-knuckles fight with President Thomas Day over layoffs that were proposed but then rescinded, is willing, somewhat grudgingly, to give credit to the embattled president for finally bringing them into the policy-making fold.

But one faculty leader warns that “all hell will break out again” if Day returns to his style of one-man rule.

Students, although still furious about increased fees, are no longer holding angry demonstrations, but the Student Council voted 9 to 7 recently to ask Day to stay away from commencement exercises. Some members wondered aloud if there was some way to keep his name off students’ diplomas.

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Investigators from the American Assn. of University Professors who came to campus to look into Day’s handling of last year’s budget crisis have left. But a draft of their report presents a scalding analysis of Day’s managerial style, portraying him as aloof, isolated, secretive and, when challenged, ferociously stubborn.

In one of its more ominous observations, the draft report concludes: “If anything, the lack of trust, and the administration’s growing isolation and rigidity, leave SDSU in a worse position than it was a year ago.”

Day, who has presided with a strong (some would say heavy) hand since 1978, says he has had a managerial epiphany and that he is not the person portrayed in the draft report. Day the Stubborn has become Day the Contrite.

“I’m a voodoo doll into which people can stick pins,” Day said in a recent interview. “OK, I understand that. In the best of times, that’s what a university president is, and in the worst of times, the pins are usually poison.”

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The pins began to be stuck last May when, without consulting the faculty on details, Day announced a plan to lay off 146 tenured and tenure-track faculty members (15% of the full-time faculty) and close nine academic departments to meet a $10-million cut in state funds for 1992-93.

Of 20 campus presidents in the Cal State system, only Day sought to balance the campus budget by laying off large numbers of faculty. He said other campuses were just delaying the inevitable.

The explanation did not fly. The sun-drenched campus became a hotbed of radical talk and furious denunciations of the president.

Students held a 174-day vigil on the steps of the Administration Building. Slogans and an oust-Day petition were painted on a construction fence that became known as The Wall. In a clandestine meeting at a restaurant called “Ship of Fools,” professors who had never before thought of openly defying Day designed a counter-offensive.

In August, the faculty, seeing no other alternative, voted 486 to 307 to urge Cal State’s Board of Trustees to fire Day and hire somebody, anybody, else. Even professors backing Day were sheepish: “He’s an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.,” said one.

The request to fire Day was rejected, but the layoffs were avoided when additional state money became available. Chancellor Barry Munitz issued a mild but pointed public rebuke to Day to mend his fences with the faculty and restore “traditional consensus-building.”

Day, a physicist by training, says he bears no animosity toward those who wanted him ousted.

“I agree with the interpretation of the faculty: How the hell could I be so arrogant as to stand there and name nine departments?” Day said recently. “I understand that attitude. I thought I was doing it on behalf of the faculty, according to the criteria they had approved, and it turns out that was a mistake.”

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However much Day might wish the events of last year would be forgotten, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

After the layoff notices were issued, the American Assn. of University Professors, which guards tenure and academic freedom like a lioness guards her cubs, formed a three-person committee to investigate the decision and Day’s overall style.

The committee, which came to SDSU and interviewed many of the combatants, is due to issue a final report next month. In the meantime, a 70-page draft report obtained by The Times found:

* “Rather than heal a rift with his faculty, President Day forced a rupture.”

* “Relations between President Day and the (California Faculty Assn.) had never been cordial.”

* Day’s proposed cuts were “inherently lacking any rationale or coherent governing principle other than as an ad hoc response to budget reduction.”

* In protecting the football team (and) the campus television and radio stations from major budget cuts, Day seemed to place a higher priority on those activities than on teaching.

* “The disregard of tenure has placed the administration under a cloud of suspicion which, by the very methods it employed, cannot be dispelled; and that fact has contributed significantly to the atmosphere of distrust on the campus.”

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Day thinks the committee has some things out of kilter and wonders why the American Assn. of University Professors is still interested in San Diego State since, in the end, no professors were laid off.

Still, he says he’s learned his lesson.

“You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not your university; it’s the faculty’s university,” Day said.

Jess Stoddart, professor of history and one of the “Ship of Fools” organizers, said the furor thrust many normally quiescent faculty members into campus politics and compelled some to become self-taught experts on the university budget.

Just as the tensions reached a breaking point, two unanticipated windfalls provided by the state Legislature--a “golden handshake” early retirement plan for professors and increased student fees--allowed the layoff notices to be rescinded.

Scores of San Diego professors took early retirement, and the crisis, if not the anger it engendered, subsided among the campus’s 22,000 full-time students and 8,000 part-time students.

Sandra Wilcox, professor of psychology at the Dominguez Hills campus and chairwoman of the Academic Senate of the Cal State system, thinks the Day example has had a chastening effect on other campus presidents, making them less willing to indulge in one-person rule.

Day notes that this year’s budget process has been entirely different than last year’s, that he has had 49 meetings in the past two months on budget matters and been willing to listen to anyone with a gripe. The 49 meetings were in addition to six lecture-hall gatherings with faculty.

“I frankly don’t know how I could consult more,” he said.

Munitz says he is heartened by what he’s heard about the change in Day’s style, adding, “It’s a tangible improvement in terms of desire and reality, but (there is) still an awful lot of ground to make up.”

Doubts, naturally, remain among the faculty.

“That’s a different Tom Day, all right,” Wilcox said. “What will make the real difference with Day is whether he can develop a new set of strategies to go along with his new insight. Insight is usually not adequate to change behavior.”

One of those who believes that Day’s conversion is a sham is Mary Duska, a Student Council member and one of the student protest leaders. “He comes to a group, gives The Speech and then answers a few questions,” she said. “That’s not real consultation.”

She predicts that now that the layoff scare has passed, the faculty will stay pacified: “The faculty got what they wanted so they’re not going to make waves. Now it’s up to the students to stand up and keep fighting Tom Day.”

In Day’s budget cut proposals for 1993-94, announced in recent weeks, the faculty was largely spared. Student health fees would increase, and the ax is poised to fall heavily on athletics, and on the television and radio stations.

Still, Day insists that because of its $60 million in research funding, strong graduate programs and joint doctorate programs with the University of California, San Diego State is still the jewel of the Cal State system.

“Sure we’ve got a bad image in the community,” he said. “We’ve spent six months throwing rocks at ourselves.”

Day, 60, figures he’ll retire as San Diego State president in a few years. “These are clearly his last years, whether it’s two, three or four,” Munitz said. “The key is to shape those years so they’re productive for him and of value to the campus.”

In his budget consultations with faculty members, Day is matter-of-fact. A recent question-and-answer session with faculty members in the College of Arts and Letters had a tone that was civil but not particularly cordial.

Although faculty layoffs will be in the order of one or two, sizable cuts will be made in the library, the professors were told. Day did not try to leaven the bad news with any humor.

“I’ve learned that unless you’re a member of the family,” he said later, “it’s bad taste to make jokes at a funeral.”


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