"I believe that this is the worst," said Humboldt State University Provost Rick Vrem, addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the university's Green and Gold Room last Tuesday. "I believe that the future looks brighter for us, potentially, than it has for some time."
The occasion was an emergency meeting of the Academic Senate, the corpus that represents the professoriat in the Byzantine world of HSU government. Earlier, professors and lecturers had filed into the room and taken seats to hear reports on how each of the university's colleges were planning to deal with the gouging cuts to next year's academic budget. En route to the meeting, a couple of them unloaded - the administration was incompetent, they said. President Rollin Richmond and his fellow higher-ups would end by ruining everything Humboldt State stood for. "It's a management problem, absolutely," said one department chair to a reporter.
But once everyone had taken seats, the old collegiate pleasantness seemed to reign. There was much tweed on display, and a high proportion of beards even for Humboldt County. While waiting for the program to begin, two music instructors enthusiastically discussed the department's new organ, which is apparently still being assembled.
Then Provost Vrem, the head of the school's academic affairs division, took the microphone. The background to his speech was known: Due to inflation, the university's flat enrollment and a relatively new get-tough policy from state government and the California State University system, Humboldt simply doesn't have as much money as it used to. To bring itself into the black, there would have to be university-wide budget reductions. Academic Affairs - under which umbrella falls all the university's academic programs, the library and information technology services, among others - would have to bear the brunt of the budget cuts.
Vrem's news was bad: Not only would Academic Affairs be required to cut its budget by about $1.58 million over the next three years, but it would also have to come to terms with what he called the division's "structural deficit." In the past couple of years, Academic Affairs had overrun its budget by $1.7 million or so. No more. Heads of each of the colleges and departments within Academic Affairs would have to come up with their own plans on how to shoulder their share of the cuts.
The deans of each of the university's colleges - Natural Resources and Sciences; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Professional Studies -- were there to lay out their ideas. The plans they described varied, but they had one common theme: fewer faculty. There will be layoffs, golden handshakes and eliminations of vacant positions across the campus next year. As a result, students could expect fewer class sections offered, and more amphitheater-sized lectures.
Still, this wasn't enough. Dean Bob Snyder of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences confirmed the rumor that he would seek to eliminate the German language department in order to bring his budget into line. Dean Susan Higgins of Professional Studies said essentially that her college would punt -- she'd seek to defer much of the cuts mandated for next year to the following years, hoping that a better plan or a solution to the budget crisis would emerge in the meanwhile.
Vrem offered some reasons to hope. It looked like the coming year's freshman class would be the largest in history, he said. Since Richmond unilaterally upped student fees to $200 a couple of weeks ago, that meant that there'd be a good bit of extra money to throw around. But when questioned, he admitted that the influx of new students - precisely what the administration had been pushing for - carried with it some problems of its own. There'd be fewer sections, so how would these new students find classes? The local housing market is tapped - where will these students live?
As regards the former, Vrem assured the faculty that new sections would be added late in the game so as to accommodate the record freshman class. As to the latter, he said that the university was looking at any number of solutions, including increasing density in the dorms. A new 450-unit dorm was in the planning stages, he said. Things were happening - positive things. And that's why Vrem thought that HSU was at its nadir this year, and that everything was looking up from here on in.
"I'm an optimist," he said.