These are desperate times for California state college administrators. California State University–Humboldt president Rollin Richmond may have broken the law in May when he urged graduates to support Governor Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax increase on the November ballot. Richmond’s on-campus commencement remarks—the entire text provided by Richmond’s office and a portion captured on video—appear to violate a state law barring the use of government resources for political purposes and for “urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure.”
Calling on his audience to “consider supporting the tax measure,” Proposition 30, which had not yet qualified for the general election ballot, Richmond warned that if it went down to defeat, the governor would cut $200 million from the 23-campus Cal State system. Richmond neglected to mention, however, that the nonpartisan State Legislative Analyst’s Office had already pointed out that any revenue Prop. 30 raised would flow into the state’s general fund—allowing legislators and the governor to spend the money on just about anything, such as backfilling the state teachers’ pension fund.
While warning of tuition hikes, faculty furloughs, and other classroom cuts, Richmond apparently hasn’t considered taking a pay cut himself. The biologist-turned-college-president earned $297,870 in salary with a $50,000 housing allowance last academic year, which makes him the eighth-highest-paid president in the CSU system. He makes more than the presidents of Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Northbridge, though both have more than three times as many students as Humboldt. It’s a safe bet that the parents and students assembled last May had little idea how much Richmond makes. A Facebook group urging him to take a pay cut had just two “likes.”
Richmond also called on parents and students attending the commencement to take out their smartphones and use an advocacy form hosted on Humboldt’s website to lobby Sacramento politicians. “Let’s all send a message to our legislators and our governor,” he said. “Let’s tell them what a great day we are having at Humboldt . . . and insist that they support higher education so future students have the same opportunities.” Richmond also commended the 2012 graduating class for making a “pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and [that I] will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work”—as if such considerations should be preeminent for graduates when California has a double-digit unemployment rate.
Such politicization isn’t unique to Cal State Humboldt, of course. According to one professor with whom I spoke, representatives of the California Faculty Association, CSU’s union, have even told professors to incorporate the pro–Prop. 30 arguments into their lectures. CSU’s Board of Trustees compounded the advocacy by announcing a 5 percent tuition increase if Prop. 30 goes down to defeat, an obvious scare tactic. CSU officials also sent professors “talking points,” “sample letters to the editor,” and PowerPoint presentations to push for Prop. 30’s passage as part of a “tool kit” to stress how the measure’s failure would “impact” California’s higher education.
At the same time, CSU officials can’t be too obvious. In October, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued Cal State Monterey Bay over an e-mail from humanities professor Ernest Stromberg urging students to vote for Prop. 30. The lawsuit cites the same provision of the state education code that Richmond may have violated in his commencement remarks last spring. Meantime, Cal State Fresno president William Covino sent an e-mail to faculty members last month warning them about using the lecture hall as a political soapbox. “While [Prop. 30] is one of the most important issues we have faced in many years,” Covino wrote, “use of the classroom to inform students about Prop. 30 and its impact on the CSU is not appropriate unless the course description includes a focus on contemporary political issues.”
Fresno State classics professor (and frequent City Journal contributor) Bruce Thornton said he isn’t surprised by Covino’s e-mail. “In my experience, when the administration warns the faculty not to do something, that’s because some faculty are doing it and there’s been a complaint,” Thornton said. “The interest of the university is not one of principle—[that] politicking in the classroom is wrong—but liability-proofing themselves.” The problem is how much the “state employees stand to gain or lose depending on the outcome of Proposition 30,” Thornton suggests. “I’d be stunned if campaigning for its passage wasn’t going on,” he said. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some faculty don’t offer extra credit for any student bringing in that little ‘I Voted’ sticker.”
The subtle advocacy campaign continues. The CSU administration sent a letter this summer to hundreds of thousands of parents of prospective students warning that the system might not have a place for their child unless Prop. 30 passes. CSU’s tax-exempt fundraising foundations have also gotten involved, contributing financially to the pro–Prop. 30 campaign—another illegal act that the faculty union actually champions on its website.
A legitimate “awareness campaign” would mean educating voters about how much money is wasted at California’s colleges. During the boom years before the Great Recession, the state spent massively on CSU schools, including $2.97 billion in the 2007–08 fiscal year. Indeed, according to one of the PowerPoints the union sent its members, even under the most drastic reductions, California would spend more money in real dollars on the CSU system than it did in the 1996–97 fiscal year ($1.78 billion in 1997, $1.81 billion in 2013, using inflation-adjusted dollars).
Cuts of more than $1 billion from the CSUs, along with attendant tuition hikes, might persuade enough Californians that students are better served not going to state college at all. CSU boasts that it trains the state’s labor force: 62 percent of agricultural workers; 64 percent of hospitality and tourism jobs; and 44 percent of “media, culture, and design” jobs—work that doesn’t generally require a college degree.
Though California’s education bureaucrats and politicians treat higher education as a birthright, not everyone should go to college, a point strongly suggested by the proliferation of remedial courses offered throughout CSU. Like the U.S. housing bubble, California’s education bubble was inflated by watering down standards for politically correct purposes. The brazenness and intensity with which some academics electioneer should be taken for what it is: the last hurrah of a broken system.