For Cal Poly Pomona President Bob Suzuki, the weekend’s commencement was supposed to be one of his finest moments: Not only had he lured the Cal State University system’s chancellor and trustees to the final ceremony, he had lined up a head of state as the keynote speaker.
But that was before controversy erupted on the 17,000-student campus over the announcement in mid-May that the speaker would be Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, the African leader who has made anti-Semitic comments and called gays “worse than dogs and pigs.”
Then the faculty, toting a 14-page list of complaints, lashed out directly at Suzuki, voting 292 to 104 that they no longer had confidence in his leadership. It was the first such vote on a Cal State campus in six years.
Finally, Mugabe announced that he would be a no-show.
So there was Suzuki on Saturday in his long black robe and beret-style mortarboard, presiding over the commencement that brought in a successful Cal Poly business school alum--an inductee in the Accounting Hall of Fame--as a backup speaker for Mugabe.
“It would have been nice to have him here,” Suzuki said of Mugabe, a man he admires for his crusade against apartheid. “But I was willing to accept the overall judgment of the campus. We’re a family here, and we have to learn how to live together.”
As members of the Cal State family, the faculty is, well, rather testy these days.
To be sure, it’s not unusual for college faculty to be a contentious lot. They’re smart, articulate and accustomed to running their own show--at least in the classroom.
At campuses throughout California, they grumble about low pay, the school bureaucracy, the loss of jobs to part-time lecturers.
But perhaps nowhere is the faculty more unhappy than at Cal Poly Pomona. When it comes to protesting actions of the administration, Cal Poly professors are more boisterous than the students.
It was the Academic Senate--not the Student Senate--that passed a resolution opposing the university awarding Mugabe with an honorary doctorate.
And again, it was the full-time faculty in the Academic Senate that took on Suzuki with a no-confidence vote. In contrast, the Student Senate has defended Suzuki by passing a resolution supporting him.
Cal Poly’s professors accuse Suzuki of playing politics with their merit pay raises and lavishing the president’s house on campus with expensive Persian rugs and other decorator items paid for with state money.
They contend that Suzuki is marching forward with a proposed golf course despite faculty concerns that the course would gobble up ecologically sensitive areas and pastureland used for agricultural studies.
Mostly, they complain that he disregards the faculty’s recommendations in big decisions, ignoring a tradition of “shared governance” recognized under a 1978 state law as the most appropriate way to manage California’s public universities.
“Since he came to campus, he has run it like a strongman in a Third World country,” said economics professor Lawrence Shute, the past chairman of the Academic Senate. “He punishes his enemies by withholding merit pay raises and rewards those who do his bidding. There is an incredible atmosphere of fear and intimidation on campus.”
Suzuki said in an interview after he stepped off the commencement podium that he wants to avoid swapping charges in the newspaper that will “further polarize” him and the faculty.
“This is an internal family matter,” he said, to be hashed out in upcoming meetings.
But he acknowledged that he and faculty leaders differ widely on the meaning of shared governance.
The faculty say they are fed up with wasting their time in endless meetings that carefully craft recommendations--only to have them promptly ignored by Suzuki.
But Suzuki said he is the president, he alone must take responsibility--the praise or the blame--for many big decisions, and he is not about to delegate the decision-making power to faculty committees.
As for the pay issue, the Academic Senate passes around figures showing that Suzuki altered 44% of this year’s merit raises, which were recommended by a high-level faculty committee. He also yanked 40 professors off the list for a raise.
Suzuki disputes some of these statistics, but acknowledged that he had to knock some faculty off the list “because we ran out of money.”
As for the vote of no confidence, Suzuki said that it was a nonbinding vote and that he has no intention of stepping down. He said he answers only to Charles Reed, the chancellor of the 22-campus California State University system and the university’s board of trustees.
Reed said he supports Suzuki completely, calling him “a very good manager.”
“He has very high expectations of not only himself but everybody else,” Reed said. “He is not much for consultation. He wants to get things done. The faculty would rather talk about it than do it. And so that causes some friction.”
But the no-confidence vote prompted Reed to send Executive Vice Chancellor David Spence as a peace envoy to the campus. Spence said he has encouraged both sides “to sit down and work it out” in a series of upcoming meetings.
The Academic Senate wants the chancellor’s office to do more: to launch a formal investigation into their complaints.
The meetings with Suzuki, said Academic Senate Vice Chairwoman Donna Tillman, are likely to go nowhere.
“Suzuki loves to meet and loves to talk,” she said. “He will meet and talk you to death, but not change a thing. The faculty are on to him.”
For all his detractors on campus, Suzuki has the respect of people in high places off campus. President Clinton appointed him to the prestigious National Science Board and he recently took over the chairmanship of the board’s education committee.
And Suzuki has demonstrated the tenacity of someone not likely to give up in the face of adversity.
Born in Portland, the 62-year-old Suzuki was uprooted with his family during World War II and sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Idaho, where he received his first three years of schooling.
He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at UC Berkeley and a PhD at Caltech. He taught at USC and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst before rising through the ranks of administrators at Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Northridge, and then becoming Cal Poly’s fourth president in 1991.
But not long after arriving on campus, Suzuki began to run into trouble, including accusations that he paid two friends $239,000 to promote the university in Asia and recruit foreign students.
An audit later found some personnel and policy violations but said they were isolated incidents and chalked them up to miscommunications and lack of experience.
The faculty was incensed at some of his spending practices at a time when the recession forced the university to make deep budget cuts.
Faculty members also have criticized Suzuki for scheduling the weeklong series of commencements at times that disrupted final exams.
But as the ceremonies unfolded last week, campus politics were overshadowed by pomp and circumstance. Suzuki sat side by side with his faculty critics and rose to shake the hand of every graduating student.
After Suzuki led the procession, a newly minted graduate and her family approached him timidly.
“Do you want a picture?” Suzuki asked, straightening his mortarboard. Soon, they were shaking hands as the student’s beaming father snapped pictures and her brother videotaped the moment.
“This is what it’s all about,” Suzuki said. “This makes it all worthwhile.”