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Educators have the wrong number in answering budget crisis

We seem to be quickly moving toward the day when the once-great Cal State system moves to a three-day week, with academic buildings rented out to storage companies and professors teaching class in parking lots and under trees.

But even so, I was taken aback to hear they might be shutting down phone service at Cal State Long Beach. I drove to the campus to see if it was true.

When I got to the office of Lisa Vollendorf, who runs the Romance, German and Russian department, I noticed that she still had a phone.

“I still have mine too,” said Jeff High, associate professor of German studies, who wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be able to make or take calls.

Vollendorf, who is on the university budget committee, said turning off the phones campuswide was recommended by committee members as a way to avoid further cuts in instruction. The thinking was that professors could use personal cellphones to conduct school business.

So why was I giggling?

“That is kind of the definition of funny, isn’t it?” High asked. “When you have no response left but to laugh?”

Well, there’s always crying, and tears might flow next year if predictions of even deeper cuts come to fruition. We could lose entire departments, furlough even more teachers and staff, and turn the whole system into a third-rate mediocrity.

I never knew how lucky I was back in the 1970s when I moved from a well-funded community college in Northern California to San Jose State, where I got my degree. I went to that school because it was an affordable bargain, and it was the great pathway to upward mobility. By training thousands each year for the workforce of a growing state, the system helped build and drive the state’s economy

A lot of the students in the Cal State system are, as I was, the first in their families to get college degrees. And they have come from every corner of the world to make their mark.

When I think about how the cuts could hurt our state, I think about Antonio Mendez, a recent graduate I met in September when I spoke to incoming freshmen at Cal State Northridge. Mendez finished at the top of his CSUN class in May and returned in September to talk to the new students. He said he majored in construction management because his father was a construction worker and Mendez wanted to honor him by moving up the ladder in the same field.

When Mendez was a sophomore, his father died from injuries caused two years earlier in a traffic accident, and the devastated student lost his way. He partied and goofed off, taking college for granted. Then one day he snapped out of it, realizing his father would have wanted him to take advantage of all the opportunities that exist on a college campus.

In his stirring speech to freshmen, Mendez said Harvard and Yale might have a lot of world-class intellectuals.

“But here at CSUN, you will find world-class people.”

I talked to CSUN President Jolene Koester last week about how the cuts are affecting her school. She says they have left a $41-million budget gap. She made up $13 million of that in increased student fees, and an additional $19 million in staff furloughs. But she still has cuts to make.

Koester said CSUN has 3,000 more low-income students than all the Ivy League schools combined. She cited a study suggesting that for every dollar the state invests in the Cal State system, $4.50 is returned to local economies because of salaries paid to the workforce. She said that 80% of the system’s graduates go on to grad school or work in California, entering fields such as nursing, teaching, engineering and healthcare.

So the question is whether, in slashing the budgets of the Cal State and University of California campuses, the state is saving money or shooting itself in the foot.

“There’s this aura in California where we think we’re better than everybody else,” said Cal State Long Beach President F. King Alexander. “But this state needs to look in the mirror when our funding per student is less than it is in Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi.”

In 2001, the state covered 50% of Cal State Long Beach’s total budget, Alexander said. By 2008, the percentage had dropped to 40%, and then in the current year it went off the cliff, falling to roughly 30%, forcing Alexander to reject thousands of student applications, beg for private donations and cut staff and programs.

“We’re turning off the phones and the lights two days every month,” he said, explaining that the entire campus is shut down on furlough days.

That means teachers lose six of the 60 hours in a semester, so they’re compensating by using more multiple-choice exams and spending less time on individual assessment. Jeff High said he’s giving tests that last only 10 minutes because everything has been squeezed. Lecturers by the dozens are out of work. Teachers are dipping into their own pockets to pay for copies of tests.

And so it goes in a state run by a governor who has greatly magnified every problem he promised to solve, and a dysfunctional Legislature built to fail because of term limits, politically polarized legislative districts and unstable revenue sources, particularly when the economy is in the dumpster.

It’s nice to see that students have awakened and begun marching on campuses, said Dan O’Connor, who chairs the Liberal Studies Department at Long Beach and keeps an empty Scotch tape roll on his desk as a symbol of where he stands.

“But they should be protesting to taxpayers, the governor and the Legislature,” he said.

They might ask, as Alexander does, why California is nearly at the top in prison funding and at the bottom in college funding per pupil. But rather than wait for answers, Alexander is cozying up to federal officials in a battle to prevent further state cuts. He and Koester met recently with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to talk strategy.

California’s funding for state colleges is so low, Alexander said, that the state is in danger of losing federal dollars. In the past, Washington has given waivers to other states that dropped below minimum support guidelines set in D.C., but Alexander asked Duncan to reject any such request from California.

Nice, huh?

College presidents in Long Beach and Northridge have to recruit muscle in Washington to scare Sacramento into doing the right thing.

Let’s hope they seal the deal before the phones are turned off permanently.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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