Bills Like White Elephants
SSU's financial misadventures with the Green Music Center continue
By Steve Orlick
The Sonoma State University Foundation's loans to "friends" were, at best, a case of poor judgment. As repugnant as this particular practice was, it is only a minor transgression in comparison with the mostly secretive behavior of SSU's highest administrators while attempting to feed the hungry elephant that has been in SSU's living room for over 10 years: the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center (GMC).
The Greens came to the campus in the late 1990s with an offer of $10 million to build a first-class choral building. Instead, SSU president Armiņana convinced them to put the same sum toward an even more grand "music center" named after them. The cost was estimated at $30 million, with the remaining $20 million to come from fundraising efforts by a partnership of the campus and Santa Rosa Symphony.
Armiņana promised the campus' skeptical faculty and Academic Senate that no campus or state resources would be necessary. I recall that the faculty and senate raised serious concerns about the campus' ability to afford such a large project with so apparently slight value to our underfunded small campus with its very small music program.
Flash forward to today, where a recent official estimate of the project's cost was up to $110 million, the shortfall figured to be $17 million. But because of a continued lack of budget transparency, it is impossible to know what these figures really are, or will be, due in part to the use of campus (state) employees for some of the construction work, and despite efforts to camouflage the costs of personnel employed by the university, such as more than 10 years of salaries in the university's fundraising ("Development") office. A reasonable estimate of this alone is $7 million to $8 million, all going exclusively to unsuccessful fundraising for the GMC.
A more realistic, all-inclusive estimate of the GMC's ultimate cost will be $130 million or more. The facility will accommodate very few new students and will be of little use as a teaching facility. Roughly 80 to 85 percent of the ultimate cost will, in fact, be borne by taxpayers, as well as by SSU's students, faculty and staff. Again, due to the nontransparent financial accounting methods used by SSU's top administrators, there is no way of estimating the actual amount of money that so far has been diverted to the GMC from SSU's struggling academic programs. It is likely that the total number of class sections not offered in the past 10 years due to the GMC has been in the thousands.
Furthermore, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported last year that the GMC will have an annual gap of some $1.15 million between revenue and operating expenses. The PD article states that the deficit "is proposed to be offset by $500,000 [annually] in funds from SSU's academic and instructional budget and $650,000 from endowments and an annual fundraising drive." Thus, money is to be taken from SSU's beleaguered teaching budget to offset losses incurred by the GMC. Taxpayers, students and their parents should be very concerned.
The elephant in SSU's living room is a persisting administration folly. Why did the state's taxpayers and campus community end up shouldering so much of the financial burden of the GMC's construction and eventual operation? Why have SSU's top administrators not been held accountable for how they have spent taxpayers' and students' dollars? Why does the campus president, in view of the unprecedented financial problems of the state, CSU and campus, continue to put his personal ego and "vision" ahead of his duty, that being to assure that the students at SSU receive the best education possible within available resources?
There are a lot more financial misadventures at SSU yet to be exposed, not the least of which involve the past and present lack of transparency involving all the financial dealings associated with the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center.
Steven C. Orlick, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of environmental studies and planning at Sonoma State University and the former chair of the SSU Faculty and Academic Senate.
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