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Class Struggle

Student fee referendum divides SSU community

By Bruce Robinson

COMPETING VISIONS of the future at Sonoma State University are heading for a showdown on the quiet Rohnert Park campus later this month in the form of a student-fee increase vote that holds dire implications for the entire California State University system.

Critics charge that the proposed 15 percent fee hike is a thinly veiled attempt to transform the publicly funded university into an Ivy League­type campus, just to assuage the ego of its president.

The issue as to whether SSU's 5,871 undergraduate students will agree to pay an additional $150 per semester for their education seems simple enough. But the process by which the matter is being brought before the students has drawn sharp criticism from such fee-reform proponents as Mario Savio, the late SSU math and logic instructor and free-speech leader, one of whose last acts was to denounce the proposal.

A lawsuit filed late this week by Savio's widow, Sebastopol resident Lynn Hollander, seeks to block the election through a court order to prohibit the release of state funds to hold the vote. Hollander's suit charges that the administration has failed to live up to the CSU trustees' directive that a "open, fair, and objective" process precede the voting. The suit also alleges that SSU has failed to meet the trustees' requirement that a code of ethics to govern the activities of SSU's Fee Advisory Committee be adopted before the FAC takes other actions.

SSU PRESIDENT Ruben Armiñana blames the need for a fee increase on the loss of $8 million a year in state funds since 1991. Eighty percent of the budget, he adds, goes to personnel costs. Rather than see the university grow to offset those losses through "economies of scale," Armiñana wants the campus population to remain limited, offering a better education by asking the students to pay the price.

"The strong desire of almost everybody on this campus is for this institution to remain relatively small, with classes taught by the faculty member and not a teaching assistant," he elaborates. "The fact is that being small costs more. It costs about $8,000 [a year] to educate a student in this type of environment. We get $5,700 from the state, we get $2,000 from the student. That leaves a gap of $300."

The university's enrollment, which is just under 7,000 this semester, is 300 more than the SSU budget anticipated, Armiñana says. But that kind of growth runs counter to the president's vision, and he anticipates that enrollment will be capped if the fee increase passes.

"I'm told, 'Why don't you grow 3,000 more students but don't grow your faculty component on the same ratio?' You can teach those students much cheaper if instead of a class of 20, you put in a class of 100. You don't need four faculty, you can do it with one," Armiñana says. "But my whole argument is based on remaining small."

With enrollment surging upward throughout the entire California University system, small-sizing will require setting a limit on admissions at SSU, something Armiñana says he is prepared to do if the referendum passes. He adds that "our niche is as a very small, residential, liberal arts college with a very strong blending of technology."

But campus critics charge that while class sizes are holding steady, the growing size and cost of the SSU administration is contributing to the deficit. Humanities student Mette Adams contends that "since Armiñana arrived, there has been an increase of at least four administrators and vice presidents" with five and six figure salaries, plus their well-paid assistants, while departmental budgets are being cut back.

If approved, the new fee would start next fall, raising roughly $1.6 million annually, with just over half going to teacher salaries and to classroom equipment and supplies. A third would be set aside for financial aid, as required by the state, and the remainder would go to support student activities and student-run programs (8 percent), to replace course fees (4 percent), and for reserves (2 percent).

In addition, the fee increase would enhance the university's ability to borrow a proposed $108 million, to be used to renovate classrooms, add dormitories, upgrade athletic fields, and make other improvements to the physical plant. Without the students' vote of confidence in the vision of the administration, obtaining those loans would be compromised, says Armiñana.

If the fee increase is not approved in the two days of student election (Nov. 20-21), 125 classes could be eliminated, he adds, a figure that represents a third of those taught by temporary and part-time faculty. The remaining classes would be larger and offered less frequently, which in turn would make it more difficult for students to graduate in only four years. And the campus population would have to increase, lessening the "small and intimate feeling of SSU," Armiñana warns.

These dire results are being challenged by a small but vocal group of students who have banded together as the League of Student Voters. "All of us feel that it sounds really great, and we want our degrees to have more worth. When you look past that, you have to look at what this means for public education," explains LSV member Adams. "We see it as the privatization of public education."

Armiñana's ideal has been branded "public ivy," an attempt to create an Ivy League­like institution within the public university framework. But Adams believes, "That is not the direction higher education should go. If you want that kind of environment, you should to a private school." The students are also concerned that higher fees would reduce the access education for some. "A lot of people come to Sonoma State because it's the only school they can afford," Adams says.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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