September 28, 2006
by HANK SIMS
Back in the summer, we made an appointment to sit down with Humboldt State University President Rollin Richmond to talk shop after the semester began. HSU is the county's premier cultural institution as well as one of its major sources of revenue, and it's been having quite a few problems lately -- simply put, it cannot attract enough students, and it can't keep enough of the ones who do come here. Its budget is shrinking.
We looked forward to discussing the issue with Richmond, who has made some bold moves to correct the matter, ruffling quite a few feathers in the process. Our appointment finally took place a couple of weeks ago, and we discussed all kinds of matters dealing with the management and the future of the institution. It was enlightening. It was edifying. In retrospect, it was very poorly timed.
Let's get the scoop out of the way. On Friday, two key HSU staffers were laid off. One of them was John Westmoreland, head of the university's shipping and receiving department and one of HSU's most senior employees. The other -- hold on to your hats -- was Bob Schulz, HSU's Director of Facilities Management, and the point man on any number of recent controversial projects: The new "gateways" to the university, of course, but also the new Behavioral and Social Sciences Building, the HSU Master Plan, the remodeling of the Van Duzer Theater and the costly renovation of his own office.
Suffice it to say that Schulz was not the most popular man on campus. The students, by and large, didn't like him. The faculty didn't much care for him either. His own janitorial staff liked him least of all, as they saw the gateways spring up all over campus while their own hours were cut. Still, he seemed to be blessed with the administration's full confidence, and there was some shock and some jubilation at the news that he was gone.
The first question was why. And in the absence of any other information, talk circulated to the effect that Schulz and Westmoreland were probably involved in some kind of scandal reminiscent of the days of former president Alistair McCrone and John Sterns, the HSU administrator who was caught cooking the books back in 2001. But both Schulz and Westmoreland say it's not so, and their former boss, HSU Vice-President for Administrative Affairs Carl Coffey, backs them up. In the strongest possible terms, Coffey said that it was all about the budget, and only about the budget.
"I've got to cut $912,000 out of a $10 million budget, so you can imagine the pain we're going through," he said. The entire campus is struggling with such cuts, a direct result of the student shortage; Coffey said that he simply had to trim some personnel. But Schulz? One of the campus' main movers and shakers? Why him? "It was extremely tough," was all Coffey had to say. "It's the kind of thing you spend a lot of sleepless nights over."
Both Schulz's and Westmoreland's duties will be split up among other members of their former departments. Schulz is taking it philosophically -- it did come as a surprise, he said Monday, but "the budget cuts finally caught up with me." For his part, Westmoreland was flabbergasted. "I've been there for 26 years," he said Monday. "I'm an alumnus of Humboldt State University, and every year I received excellent evaluations. I'm the longest-serving administrator under Administrative Affairs, and even possibly the campus."
It would have been nice to put the question to Richmond when we met with him -- why them, in particular? The president is, in our experience, extremely open when you're able to get hold of him. But he is very possibly the single busiest man in Humboldt County, and when you see the magnitude of the challenges that face him, it's easy to understand why.
Humboldt State did a little bit better this year than last. It was able to attract more students, though still not enough to meet state-mandated requirements for enrollment. Last year, total enrollment had fallen, and for the first time the California State University system forced the university to pay back the shortfall, resulting in a very dire budget for the 2006-07 school year. Richmond's being forced to do more with less. He's running the risk of watching the university dwindle and dwindle away. It's a serious situation.
In response, Richmond is seeking to transform HSU as an institution, and he's naturally pissing off quite a few people in the process. Some professors don't like his insistence that they participate in their academic field, contributing to the total sum of knowledge, in addition to their teaching load. Others feel that he favors the university's world-class programs in the natural resources over those in the unsexy but necessary humanities and social sciences departments. Politically active students are upset that he vetoed their objections to increased student fees to pay for health services and parking.
But you look at the school's problems, and it's hard to imagine a better overall strategy than Richmond's. He wants to raise HSU's profile, and he wants to make the school stand for something that could conceivably be interesting to an active, engaged young person.
Richmond said that HSU's students are "qualitatively different" than those of any other university he's been associated with, in that they are interested in social and environmental justice at least as much as their own careers. And in that, he sees both a mission statement and a marketing pitch. "That focus on what we can do to make the world a better place -- that's our strength," he said.
There's been a lot of nuts-and-bolts type work done on this already. The university has revamped its website, and it has built those damned gateways, which may indeed serve as a subconscious reminder that you are at a university. There's been an increase in outreach programs to high schools. Apparently, more people now know that Humboldt State exists than did before. That's something.
But the real test will be over the budget, which is being further tossed around right now. A lot of administrators are going over their records, looking at what to trim. And if Richmond can pull it off without a significant revolt from the faculty, students or staff, he'll be well on his way. If not, maybe no one can put the university back into gear.
Citizens! The onslaught of the 2006-2007 TV season is just about to hit. How will you survive with your brain at least partly intact? For the next month, at least, public television station KEET-TV (Channel 13) has you covered. The lighting isn't very good and some of the performances are absolutely abysmal, but KEET and the Humboldt County League of Women Voters -- the smartest and most chic chapter in California, by the way -- have for the last few years teamed up to bring our would-be leaders into our living rooms, in the form of televised debates.
It's a lot of work, and this season they've gone all-out, producing a series of seven debates for all the major races on the Nov. 7 ballot. Want to know how committed they are to this, and to the voters of Humboldt County? They're even holding debates for the state and federal races -- each of them total, absolute, unambiguous, 100 percent, forget-about-it-why-don't-you locks for the Democratic ticket.
Each of the debates starts at 7 p.m., except in the case of the U.S. House of Reps debate on Oct. 7, which starts at 6 p.m. Snip out the following schedule and tape it to your set.
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© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.