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Stormy Weather at HSU 

... Why were they rallying, exactly?

click to enlarge Photo by Helen Sanderson
  • Photo by Helen Sanderson

The rain was coming down in relentless sheets Monday, hard and steady upon the dozens of Humboldt State students who gathered midday on the quad, cardboard signs sagging, shoulders raised up to jaws for warmth, to rally about, um ... Why were they rallying, exactly?

For an observer, it was hard to understand the exact purpose of this foul-weather shindig, and not merely because too many mic-wielding pontificaters chased obscure tangents on topics that had little to do with the crisis at hand. No, beyond that, it's not a surprise that the waters got muddy, what with such big issues competing for attention: $5.5 million-worth of looming budget cuts, faculty walk-out threats, eroding university programs. And so, student sentiments flowed into a confusing confluence of frustration that still, somehow, managed to be uplifting.

So what was the objective, anyway?

"Mostly, the rally was to show [CSU] Trustee Roberta Achtenberg that we won't just sit back and not have a voice," explained Sarah Schneider, an environmental ethics sophomore. "We figured it would be a good time to talk about budget concerns and how wonderful HSU is and to express this to her in person."

Achtenberg, Chair of the California State University Board of Trustees, visited HSU Monday as part of the CSU-wide Access to Excellence, an initiative to establish program priorities and meet future challenges at state universities. During a break from the all-day brainstorming session, Achtenberg and HSU President Rollin Richmond briefly listened to rain-soaked students but did not, however, address the crowd.

And while Achtenberg's presence generated buzz and "raised awareness," as students like to say, it's a small blip on the radar compared to the storm brewing over HSU's shrinking budget and the proposed strike of some 24,000 CSU faculty across the state because of a contract negotiation impasse.

So there are two issues of equal gravity following parallel timelines: While HSU is trying to trim its expenditures by 7 percent, or by around $5.5 million, unionized faculty are negotiating for pay raises that they say are overdue and would put them in line with other institutions around the country.

After almost two years of wrangling between administrators and instructors, a "fact-finding" neutral third party is now attempting to find common ground between the two. But in the event that an agreement cannot be reached, the California Faculty Association has authorized a vote to strike. The system-wide vote will begin later this week and wrap up March 15, around the same time the fact finder is expected to release a report.

If a majority of instructors call for a strike before salaries are agreed upon, faculty will walk out in late March or early April. Such a job action is something that CFA President John Travis, an HSU government professor, is calling a "very distinct possibility."

The CSU has offered the union a 24.5 percent faculty salary increase over the next threeyears, but the union argues that when state budget contingencies are taken into consideration, the raise only amounts to 15 percent, which, the union counters, will barely keep pace with inflation. Another sore point for the CFA: the substantial pay raises university executives have taken in recent years.

The impasse appears to be taking its toll on President Richmond. In a Feb. 27 letter to HSU colleagues, he wrote: "The failure of the negotiations between the CFA and the CSU is unprecedented in my experience and troubles me a great deal."

But the troubles don't end there for Richmond. Budget reduction talks are reaching a critical stage, with each department of the university responsible for outlining ways to cut 7 percent of its budget. Richmond has asked for final recommendations by mid-March and plans to announce his finalized university budget by the first week of April.

With the clock ticking, everything is on the chopping block. To help prioritize university programs, the 13-member University Budget Committee used a scoring method called the Delphi technique to find out which programs are perceived as the most vital to HSU's success and which ones are not.

Topping the list of 30 programs were the College of Natural Resources and Science, Enrollment Management and the University Police. At the bottom were the Career Development Center, Public Affairs, KHSU-FM public radio and First Street Art Gallery. Athletics also received low scores. The Student Health Center fell toward the middle and the library was near the top.

Along with possible staff reductions, class size increases, limited class offerings and perhaps program eliminations, a 7-percent increase in student fees is being considered to hack away at the $5.5 million deficit by as much as $1.5 million. A fee hike, however, would likely face resistance from students, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also proposing a 10 percent fee increase for all CSUs for the next school year.

Ever since the budget woes were first*laid out*last fall, faculty, staff and students have pointed to the downward spiral effect the university is experiencing. And the trend isn't showing any sign of slowing: Program erosion leads to a drop in student enrollment and retention. Unmet enrollment goals lead to reduced budgets. And so on.

Meanwhile, at least one professor, Phyllis Chin, has voluntarily taken a salary cut to help assuage the impending budget reductions. Since last month, Chin has donated 5 percent of each pay check to the HSU math department where she been teaching for the past 31 years. On Tuesday she said she was hoping that other HSU employees - in particular administrators - would follow her lead, but as far as she is aware, not one has.

"The administration recently had gotten raises and I was hoping that some of them might see to doing the same thing," she said. "By myself I don't make much of a difference."

The next University Budget Committee meeting will take place this Friday at HSU's Corbett Conference Room from 1-4 p.m.

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Helen Sanderson

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