On the cover:
by HANK SIMS
TWO WEEKS AGO, RICK VREM [photo at right] , Humboldt State University's vice president for academic affairs, convened a campus-wide "town-hall meeting" at the university's Goodwin Forum. The theme of the meeting was "Academic Quality at HSU," something that Vrem said he had been thinking about for a long time.
It didn't take long for the 100 or so professors present to learn that Vrem, at least, feared that the university's academic quality was not quite what it could be. In fact, he said all the data he gathered suggested that there were likely serious problems with the quality of teaching -- the "academic rigor" of HSU coursework.
"Some of you may be saying, `This is a direct affront to me,'" he said. "What I'm about to talk about -- it could be perception, or it could be reality. Even if it's simply perception, I think it's an important issue for the university to address."
Vrem proceeded to show the assembled professors a series of slides demonstrating that in the eyes of many, Humboldt State is simply not a serious place to go to school. A national survey of college students showed that HSU students studied less than their peers elsewhere and came to class unprepared more often. Prospective students gave Humboldt low scores for academic reputation and intellectual life.
Perhaps worst of all, for someone with Vrem's job, was this year's edition of the annual U.S. News survey of the nation's colleges and universities -- for many parents, the definitive guide to whether the school they're sending their children to is worth the money they'll be spending. HSU ranked 39th among universities in the western U.S. this year. Not so long ago, the magazine ranked it as high as 10th.
"I felt like, as I've seen this evidence, that I couldn't ignore it," Vrem said. "I feel like it's something that as a campus -- especially as a faculty -- we should engage with."
Sitting in the back of the room, listening intently as the assembled faculty became increasingly edgy during the hour-long presentation, was HSU President Rollin Richmond. It's been two and a half years since the 60-year-old Richmond was hired to rehabilitate the university after the long, lackadaisical administration of Dr. Alistair McCrone. In that time, Richmond has built an enviable reputation, both on campus and off -- dynamic leader, respected scholar, model citizen. Until recently, it was difficult to find anyone with a harsh word for him, or even a mildly critical one.
Among HSU faculty, that is starting to change. Richmond is increasingly turning his attention to addressing the university's chronic inability to attract as many students as it would like. His proposed solutions to the problem are still tentative, but if they are carried out they would mark a definite shift in the way the university defines itself as an institution. Many faculty members are excited about Richmond's ideas, which involve raising the academic profile of HSU so that it can compete with better-known universities. Others are skeptical, with some openly protesting what they see as a betrayal of HSU's history and its mission.
With one or two exceptions, the professors who spoke in Goodwin Forum that afternoon firmly rejected the idea that the level of instruction at HSU is sub-par. Near the end of the meeting, Dr. Stephen Cunha, a respected member of the geography department, got up to speak. Vrem may have prefaced his presentation with a disclaimer -- the data may either reflect "perception" or "reality" or both -- but if he did think there was something to it, Cunha sought to quash his notions then and there. Why didn't Vrem look at more tangible yardsticks of achievement -- for example, the percentage of HSU undergraduates who had gone on to Ph.D. programs? Cunha said that geographers around the state, some of them from big, prestigious schools, salivated over Humboldt's resources and its ability to turn out skilled alumni ready for graduate school or the workforce.
"They would think you're smoking some of Humboldt's crop," Cunha said, to the crowd's amusement. "I don't understand this at all. I don't think it's that grim, Mr. Grinch."
Finding its `brand'
In his office a few days after the town hall meeting, Richmond -- a tall, bespectacled Midwesterner with a quick mind and a straightforward manner -- pondered the statements members of the faculty had made in response to Vrem's presentation. A bust of Alexander von Humboldt rested on a table behind him.
"I think it's true that there are many, many good faculty here, good courses and students who benefit from them," Richmond said. "I also think that there are probably some examples of courses and faculty and students who could improve. I don't think that even the best institutions in this country uniformly do a good job."
Richmond thinks that HSU needs to get serious about addressing its own deficiencies if it is going to pull itself out of a deepening hole. Compared with other state universities, HSU is having a hard time finding customers. Richmond stops just short of calling the campus's problems attracting new students a "crisis," but there's clearly some cause for serious concern.
In the last 20 years, California's population has increased by nearly 10 million while HSU's number of full-time students has hovered at around 7,000. The university began a push to increase its student population a few years ago, but it has been unable to do so. More and more students are applying to Humboldt and more and more are being accepted, but in the last five years the number of prospects who actually enroll has remained steady. Presumably those students who don't enroll opt for other schools. At the same time, the university has had a hard time keeping the students who did enroll; last year, about 25 percent of the freshman class and 20 percent of the sophomores either dropped out or transferred to other schools.
Although HSU ranks near the middle among CSU campuses in both statistics enrollment and retention the administration and faculty all agree the university must do better.
With no increase in enrollment, HSU is not playing its part as a state-financed institution to meet California's demand for higher education. It also places itself at greater risk when the state and the California State University system divvy up funds for the year -- the fewer students, the more likely that a university will get a raw deal.
"That's how the budget is determined," said Scott Hagg, HSU director of admissions.
In the last few years, HSU has been shooting for ever-higher "enrollment targets." Right now, HSU is about 200 students short of its 2004-05 enrollment target of 7,209. The enrollment target is set to increase every year until at least 2006-07, when the university hopes to have 7,450 students attending. In other words, the university is seeking to add 400 students -- over half of an entire freshman class -- in two years. It will be an uphill battle.
Part of the answer to the problem, Richmond believes, is to market the university better. If more prospective students were aware of HSU's academic strengths and its social character, more students would apply to the school and enroll. Last year the university hired Noel-Levitz, a Colorado-based consulting firm, to conduct research on campus in an effort to define the HSU "brand" and figure out how to sell it better. That's only part of the answer, though -- the rest, Richmond feels, lies in transforming the university into a place where more serious young people want to come to learn.
Last semester, a working group that Richmond had convened to plan for the future of the university published a "penultimate draft" of its study, the HSU Strategic Plan. Much of the draft dealt with everyday subjects that a long-range plan would be expected to address -- new campus buildings and physical infrastructure, budgeting, relations with the community.
But one section of the report proposed a fundamental change in the university's identity. It recommended that faculty promotion should depend on a professor's scholarship -- on work done within each faculty member's discipline, apart from her work in the classroom.
For professors in the sciences and humanities, scholarship was tightly defined as publishing work in scholarly journals or securing grants to undertake research; in the fine arts, it meant professional exhibitions and recognition by critics and peers. Richmond was an early champion of the proposal.
"This institution, like the CSU as a whole, its prime mission is to educate young people," he said last week. "But I don't believe that you can be an effective teacher without being engaged in scholarship of your discipline. That doesn't mean you have to go out and get a research grant and publish a paper in Science, but it does mean you have to be engaged, in some way, in trying to move the field forward intellectually. It doesn't mean you pull books off the shelf and read it the night before you go in and give your lecture."
Immediately after the "penultimate draft" was published, though, several faculty members voiced strong opposition to the language. In the current faculty handbook, "scholarship" is defined broadly and includes "development of curriculum and innovative methods of teaching/librarianship and practices that significantly enhance or add breadth to one's skills, abilities and knowledge as a teacher." The change proposed by the plan was the subject of strong debate in the Academic Senate, a campus organization representing members of the faculty.
Dr. Martin Flashman, an HSU mathematics professor for more than 20 years, [photo at right] is one of the professors opposed to the change. He said last week that an emphasis on scholarly activity, as defined in the strategic plan, was inappropriate for a primarily undergraduate institution such as Humboldt. HSU shouldn't try to compete with UC Berkeley or UC Davis, he said; its professors should strive, first and foremost, to be excellent educators.
"It's one of the things that made Humboldt so special," he said. "It's that at Humboldt, teaching was first and foremost. Even though it's still that way in the handbook, various committees have moved toward a much less accurate reading of that."
Flashman takes great pride in his ability to get material across to his students and help them to think creatively about math. The strategic plan, if enacted, would freeze young professors who sought to follow his lead out of promotions. Instead, Flashman said, they would be required to divert their attention away from the classroom and into research -- all the while moving further and further away from the primary mission of the California State University system.
In late November, HSU's Associated Students agreed with Flashman and other professors who thought that the "scholarship" passage represented a misstep by the university. The AS -- the legislative arm of student government -- passed a resolution brought by one of its members, Kyle Zeck, who said the passage had the "potential to erode the quality of education at the undergraduate level."
"There is tremendous pressure being put on professors to prove they are doing a good job by publishing as much as possible," Zeck wrote in an e-mail last week. "They don't need that pressure -- they have lives outside of their job, and their job should be focused on educating their students. At the end of the day, students don't work hard through college so that they can subsidize their professor's research career. They're here to learn."
Flashman's concern for future generations of HSU undergraduates has led him to what most on campus would still consider unthinkable -- a certain measure of nostalgia for the days when Alistair McCrone was in charge. McCrone may not have had great vision, but his heart was in the right place, Flashman said.
"I saw McCrone as a person who was not necessarily leading us some places, but who was flexible and that his ultimate concern was with undergrads," he said. "That might be a misreading of him, but the things that I saw McCrone participating in and supporting at Humboldt seemed to be aimed at the undergraduates."
More students, fewer dollars
At the same time that Richmond is beginning to ask people to work harder -- in the classroom, in the community and in their disciplines -- the state budget crisis is placing crippling limits on his ability to compensate them for their efforts. The CSU system fared relatively well in last year's budget, but the continuing rise in health insurance, workers' compensation and other costs mean that the university could be squeezed tighter in coming years. If the university's enrollment drive doesn't produce more students, the problem is likely to be worse.
Robin Meiggs [photo at left] , coach of the HSU Women's Crew team and chair of the local chapter of the California Faculty Association, said last week that she was concerned that the administration's drive to get faculty to work harder -- in the classroom, in the community and in their disciplines -- was coming at a time when faculty layoffs could be looming.
Meiggs said that each academic department, across the campus, is being asked to prepare budgets for the 2005-06 school year that include across-the-board cuts of 5.5 percent off the current year. There's no sign yet that such cuts will come to pass, but Meiggs said the request didn't bode well -- and that if such cuts were enacted they would have a devastating effect on instruction at the university.
"If a 5.5 percent budget reduction actually is mandated, then probably around 85 percent of the part-time, temporary faculty would be without work," Meiggs said. Such lay-offs would mean that the regular faculty would be required to teach more classes -- presumably taking time away from their scholarly activities -- or that fewer classes would be offered.
At the same time, Richmond said that the university is "under-administered," compared to other universities, and that he would be looking to hire a few more administrators -- as well as more tenure-track professors -- next year. "It's certainly possible to get a bloated administration," he said recently. "This institution is not in that category at all."
Dr. Milt Boyd [photo at right] , chair of the biology department, said that he had not yet been asked to submit a reduced budget for next year, but that he had heard from the dean of his college that such a request was likely forthcoming. Boyd said that his department was hard-pressed as it is.
"I'm at the department level," Boyd said. "I'm putting faculty in front of students. I had a student come into my office and burst into tears because he thought that he would not be able to enroll in a class that he needed to graduate at the end of this semester.
"Someone would have to do quite a presentation to convince me that, that instead of more faculty in front of students we need more administrators."
For her part, Meiggs questioned Richmond's spending priorities in the upcoming year; not only the new administrators he said he would try to hire, but the over $80,000 paid to Noel-Levitz and $250,000 to fund a study of a new administration building on campus.
"While I think that these things are important, it's hard to see how you can do them concurrently when people are being laid off," she said.
"[Richmond] is a good man, but we don't always see eye to eye. I do truly believe that his ideas when he first came to Humboldt were very good ideas. It's just that faculty are very concerned about the declining budget and the effect that's having on their ability to do a good job."
Keeping an agile mind
Many HSU professors still see Richmond as they first saw him in 2002 -- as someone who could shake the university out of the doldrums and toward the front of the collegiate pack. Among them is Dr. Dave Hankin [photo at left] , chair of the fisheries department and head of the strategic plan subcommittee that wrote the new recommendations on research and scholarly activity. For Hankin, Richmond's solid backing of the plan is evidence that the president is truly interested in making the institution great.
"There is an element of the campus that has been like this ever since I got here, that thinks that people who do research do it at the expense of their classes," Hankin said. "I think that's completely preposterous. In fact, I would argue that people who don't engage in research or scholarship or something like that, in some respects ought not to be teaching. When I first got here, this situation was way worse. For it to continue to go on is really silly."
As evidence that scholarship and instruction complement, rather than rob from each other, Hankin cites the case of Dr. Tim Mulligan, his colleague in the fisheries department. Mulligan, who was named HSU's "Scholar of the Year" in December, is by Hankin's account a great instructor -- with student evaluation forms "like I've never seen" -- but is also actively involved in getting his students into the field and securing large grants for research projects.
Hankin said that from his point of view, Mulligan's case was extraordinary but also typical of great faculty members. A former HSU Professor of the Year himself, Hankin said that it is essential for scholars to stay involved in the problems and arguments that every discipline grapples with over the years. It keeps the mind agile, and is the only thing that keeps a scholar enthusiastic about his field. If a professor isn't passing that enthusiasm onto his students, he isn't passing on anything worthwhile.
"I couldn't in good conscience teach if I couldn't do this stuff," he said. "I guess it doesn't bother other people, but it would bother me."
Hankin's view is probably the dominant one on campus. Though a significant number of HSU faculty are disgruntled by the fact that Richmond seems to be pulling them in many directions at once -- more time in the classroom, more time in the field -- the dissenters are far from unified. At the town hall meeting, for example, many of the professors who argued that there was no problem with the quality of teaching at the university were among the most renowned scholars on campus. Stephen Cunha, who pleased the crowd in Goodwin Forum with his verbal jabs at Vrem, is forever flitting off to Burma or Central Asia to do fieldwork. Most of them would probably be in favor of receiving a reduced teaching schedule to support their research activities.
Richmond last week acknowledged the tension on campus these days, as some faculty with long and distinguished careers at the university begin to feel that things are going the wrong way. But he didn't seem inclined to let his reputation as a bridge-builder and all-around nice guy prevent him from taking a stand.
"This institution has been stable for a very long time, and I'm asking it to do things that it hasn't before," Richmond said. "That's bound to make some people concerned."
Milt Boyd, who is paying close attention to his department's funding and wondering how he's going to "put faculty in front of students," is one such person. Boyd said that he agreed with Richmond's support of the strategic plan. He thought that more attention and credit for research and scholarship would benefit the campus.
When he was asked to grade Richmond as he would grade his students, though, Boyd said that there was only one possible answer.
"Incomplete," he said.
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© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.