A Needed Response…

Written almost a year ago and never let out of the bag because I was busy job searching.  Well, I have a job now and do not care.  Plus, it is mostly irrelevant as the Student Center mentioned will be opening in a few months.  Read through it and liked it.

This is quite a lengthy post, but something I was compelled to write.  It is in response to a recent article that was mass sent to my work email about our institution by a faculty member.  I have not officially posted this comment on the site, but needed to get some of my thoughts out on the subject.  The article I am referring to is The Financialization of Higher Education and Sonoma State University: Part III (link opens in new tab).  I am still deciding whether to post my comment or not.

There are a lot of interesting points brought up in this article, so I commend Dan on the research he put into this piece.  What I find alarming is how one-sided this article is.  To do the research, yet only provide one point of view, is misleading to readers who are not familiar with the issues you bring to light.

As an employee of SSU, I have seen some of these actions first-hand.  I do not agree with every decision made by the administration of the school and have been known to refer to SSU as “Hotel Sonoma State.”  I feel that there is a dramatic disconnect between the institutional mission and actions.  I fully agree with Dan on that issue.

What I cannot ignore is how some of this information is skewed and how other pieces of information are cleverly left out of this article.  Not too mention how you jump to conclusions on many issues, most notably the internationalization of the institution and privatizing of student education.

SSU currently only has one person who works with International students and from my understanding does not actively recruit international students because of a lack of resources.  You assuage that SSU will start “selling seats” to these students because they are revenue generating.  While this may be true, it is difficult to “sell seats” to international students, when you are not actively recruiting them (this would also apply to out-of-state students).  SSU is not a top-tier institution by any stretch of the imagination (our testing scores will confirm that), therefore how international students find the school (this is speculative) is through word of mouth or stumbling across our website through internet searches.

Having worked for international student services at a previous institution, while it may seem lucrative at first glance, it is actually taxing to a university because of the amount of time and energy that needs to be spent to make sure that the school stays in compliance with complicated laws and polices from the Department of Homeland Security.  In fact, I have also worked for DHS and have seen what international students need to go through on all sides (acquiring a Visa, traveling and additional processing at US points of entry, TOEFL requirements) and what the institution is responsible for.  Trust me, it is not a simple as you make it seem that it is free money flowing in to an institution.

I am also interested where the 4% figure for international students came from when reports submitted to the Chancellor’s Office (and are posted publicly on SSU’s Institutional Research website) show international students only account for 0.7% of the campus population (http://www.sonoma.edu/aa/ir/enr94_05.shtml).  Not to mention, the same link shows that the out-of-state student population is also 0.7%.  Could this potentially increase?  Yes it could, however, not as dramatically as you make it seem unless there is a concerted effort to recruit in these population areas.  Something extremely difficult to do considering staff in these areas have been drastically reduced over time and are essentially operating at bare minimums.

Privatizing of student education, especially the pilfering of students by for-profit institutions, is a fear of many who believe in the value and importance of higher education.  Where I disagree with your argument is you claim that so many students who cannot find classes at SSU (or the SRJC for that matter) are jumping into the deep and dark waters of the for-profit world.  I work with many, many students on a regular basis and have yet to hear from one student who has made this plunge.  I do hear complaints about ability to get certain classes and know of students who are in impacted majors.  Where I dismiss this argument is we do not put the same level of responsibility on students that we expect from the institution.  I have no sympathy when students do poorly in a class and then need to retake it in the future but have difficulties in getting the course they need.  Life happens and there are circumstances beyond our control.  I understand that, but a lack of effort is not an excuse.  I am also not supportive of the fact that faculty members cancelling classes a couple of days before a break or holding finals during the last week of classes instead of the assigned week.  If we are talking about fiscal responsibility, then this subject also needs to be explored.  Students are not getting their monies worth (especially if there are enrollment caps) if classes are cancelled or weeks are repurposed for other reasons.

Furthermore, I believe that there is value to distance-learning and that this will be the new challenge to traditional “brick and mortar” institutions of higher education.  Look at what MIT, Stanford, and former faculty members are doing by providing free courses through the internet.  This is the new potential of higher education and is the biggest competitor to both for-profit and traditional higher education. If I have the opportunity to learn from the best and brightest and do not have to pay for it, then I am going to take that option, as most people would.

Lastly, I want to clarify some issues around the “illegal student election.”  I am tired of people referring to this election as being “illegal.”  Students voted.  There were improprieties on both sides of this election, yet only one-side is constantly demonized.  I had a very close interaction with the process and yet have never been asked a single question about what happened or my perspective.  Everyone is so quick to draw their own conclusions and make their own claims that they have yet to ask certain people who were the ones on the front lines during the process.  I figured that I will address the points you claim lead to the process being “illegal” point-by-point.

I do not understand why an article in the Chronicle is being cited as one of the reasons that the process was “illegal.”  Just because people (a) chose not to read the article or (b) read the article and decided not to support the reasoning, does not mean that the process was “illegal.”  Where is the objectivity in your journalism?  Almost everything you site is from the Chronicle (clearly has a skewed perspective) or The Press Democrat.  There are other news sources out there including the institutional website, where you should have acquired your facts and figures on the university population and percentages.

*In an aside… In the time leading up to the election, Peter Phillips randomly spammed an unspecified population of campus individuals with results from the most unscientific and biased “survey” I have ever seen.  There was absolutely no statistical analysis done (even though it was a quantitative assessment) and the conclusions were some of the most egregious I have witnessed.  The questions were crafted to elicit certain responses that would favor his particular point of view.  This “survey” (I put in quotations because I dare not confuse it with actual assessment) was then taken as fact by different media outlets without a shred of questioning.  So I am confused when the words “propaganda” (not mentioned in this particular article) are thrown out around the fee referendum.  In my opinion, this would be a primary example of trying to sway people to vote in a particular way.  However, this has never been mentioned or challenged until this point (at least to my knowledge).*

The election had one of the highest turnouts in school history, yet you slam the fact that almost two-thirds of students did not vote.  They had the opportunity and right to vote, yet did not.  How does that make the election “illegal?”  Does that mean our federal elections are “illegal” because anywhere from 40%-60% of the eligible voters (http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm) do not participate? Are you insinuating that the other two-thirds would have said no?  I think that is quite a stretch.  Students were reminded each day to vote, when the deadline to vote by was, and it was made even simpler by being online through their on-campus email and accessible at any computer.  People who did not exercise their right to vote, in the 72 hour span, that is their problem.  If they were against or for the building then they had an opportunity to stress their opinion.  Those who claim that the referendum was “buried” in the process should recognize that the election was for a new undergraduate student government and that the referendum was an additional ballot issue, not the other way around.  Referendums have always come at the end of the election ballot.

On a similar note, the way you state the results, “Students were eventually said to have voted 58% in favor of the new Student Center…” is almost as if the results were doctored.  I was in the room when the final results were posted.  I saw first-hand the percentage in favor of the fee increase.  That is what it was.

Not to mention, in our recent academic senate election process we needed to extend the deadline on nominations and voting multiple times because the necessary number of nominees or votes had not occurred according to the Academic Senate constitution and bylaws.  So, I was inundated with email after email because people were not exercising their right to vote, even though I did my duty on day one of the polls being open.  Perhaps we should not be too quick to point fingers at our students or others, if we ourselves do not take our privilege to vote on our own governance seriously.

I was in the meeting when the Academic Senate passed the resolution for a third-party to review the process.  When you refer to “dragging feet,” the resolution provided no solution for as to how this process would be conducted or who would be responsible for paying for a third-party investigation.  The resolution only asked for a letter to be crafted outlining the potential violations of the election process and requesting a third-party to review the process.  The impetus was on the faculty to do this, so if there was any dragging of feet, then it was by the very people who crafted this resolution.

I find it interesting that you brought up the issue of  the lawsuit, one that was dropped because there were not proper grounds (http://www.sonomastatestar.com/mobile/news/plans-for-student-center-lawsuit-dropped-groundbreaking-postponed-1.2612119).  I was asked to submit every piece of information I had around the fee referendum as part of this process and did so confidently and willingly because I knew there was no violation.  These lawyers confirmed that.  So again, I am not sure why this was even brought up in this article and then so grossly misrepresented.

On your last point about the Student Center, the bond is through the CSU and not SSU, therefore, it needs to be approved by the Chancellor’s Office.  They had the ability to say no and they did not.  This vote was supposed to originally occur in September but was postponed so that focus groups could be done as further consultation before the vote was brought to the Chancellor.  This fails to be mentioned in your article, but instead the nature of the vote is framed as being a “shady, back alley handshake” (my words) between the institution and the CSU.  It was coincidental that there was another vote taking place that day on raising student fees.  It was not designed that way.  And again, a majority of voting students were in favor of the fee increase.  Perhaps, we should be more upset over the closed-door fee increase you mention where students did not have the ability to vote or express their point of view.

I have my concerns over this building, the GMC, and the state of Sonoma State University.  What I find to be a school with limitless potential and opportunity, I see it being squandered because of mismanagement and lack of foresight.  I am critical of where I work and believe that our decisions should be made to support the student experience, persistence, and graduation.  We need to be churning out students who will be essential in helping fix the problems our state, nation, and world are facing.

I am not confident that we are doing that right now.  It is not necessarily the building of buildings that is contributing to this.  In my opinion, it is a lack of shared institutional mission and the failure to explain the vision in a way that generates buy-in.  I am supportive of new leadership with new ideas in a time of new challenges.  We cannot continue to try and force a square peg in a round hole.

However, we all have a part to play in this script.  When I hear of students who have classes cancelled regularly and are given finals the last week of class instead of finals week, then we have a problem.  When we continue to reduce the student services work force yet are trying to diversify our student population, then we have a problem.  There is a lack of transparency as to why decisions are made and an even greater lack of willingness to receive input from those who are working every day with our most important constituency, the students we serve.  Notice I write, “the students we serve.”  It is not the other way around.  And we have lost sight of that.

We continually make cuts in the areas of student services and academics (areas that work with students daily), whereas these divisions on other CSU’s are not feeling a similar impact.  At some point, something has got to give.  Recently, that has been the dissolution of the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and potentially the dissolution of the Sonoma Student Union Corporation.  These decisions are not the answers to solving our problems.  There needs to be a deep and difficult introspection at the highest levels of the institution.  There needs to be greater conversations that include more than just a handful of people.  There is more at stake than ever before and there are more stakeholders that are often ignored.

Dan, I appreciate your detail and insight with this article.  Though I may disagree with some of your points and I am critical of some of your conclusions, I know that you are looking to shed light on issues that are plaguing an institution, so that people may open their eyes.  I thank you for writing this piece and look forward to more of your work in the future.

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About Justin Sipes

Learner Input Strategic Achiever Analytical
This entry was posted in Higher Ed, Leadership, Personal and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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