By Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed
Student protests at San Francisco State University in 1968 led to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies — the country’s first and only such freestanding college and a pioneer in the field that has influenced departments nationwide.
Now student protesters and faculty members are fighting to keep the college afloat in light of what they describe as cumulative, effective budget cuts that have had an outsize impact on their small unit.
“It was a powerful day and testimony to the national and international importance of this college,” Andrew Jolivette, chair of the college’s Department of American Indian Studies, said of a recent massive on-campus rally and meeting in support of Ethnic Studies. “This college is saving lives, as so many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. … But if we’re this quote, unquote jewel or symbol, why has there been nothing done to advance ethnic studies before this?”
The protest was prompted by recent word from the university that it can’t keep funding the college’s consistent deficit of about $200,000 annually, given tight budgets across California public institutions. But the college says it’s a lot more complicated than that and that the issue is one of chronic underfunding, not overspending.
“On day one [of the fiscal year] I receive less money than is necessary to pay the salaries of the people who work here, before I’ve even turned on the copy machine or purchased materials for classes or offered any faculty members professional development,” said Kenneth Monteiro, dean of Ethnic Studies. “So when one says that you’ve spent more money than there was before it got to you, we don’t enjoy that characterization.”
Monteiro and other faculty members say the college’s basic operating budget hovers above $5 million, but since the recession funding it receives from the university doesn’t reflect that.
Last year, for example, Ethnic Studies received an initial budget allocation from Academic Affairs of $3.6 million, with additional allocation of $1.3 million, and ran a deficit of about $244,000, according to information from the university.
But Monteiro said that those allocations added up to $275,000 less than was required to pay mandatory salaries. The college is budgeted for 42 full-time-equivalent faculty, according to information from the university. Of 30,000 students at the university, 716 were enrolled in at least one College of Ethnic Studies course in fall 2015, according to information from the university.
The college’s numbers are different, at 6,000 students enrolled, with 1,300-1,500 full-time-equivalent students. Monteiro said enrollment’s stayed flat for the last half-dozen years because the college can’t offer more courses with its resources.
To run the college based on allocations alone going forward, as is being requested, would mean cutting all funding to the college’s César E. Chávez Institute for research, community-based work, work-study for students, core graduate classes, classes taught by faculty members on sabbatical and more, Monteiro said. It would also mean suspending new hires for several years, even those to replace faculty members who have retired or gone elsewhere.
Monteiro described such cuts as straitjacketing the college, which he said is growing in terms of majors and minors and plays an important role in general education for many non-majors. There were 232 ethnic studies majors in fall 2014, according to the most recent information available from the university. Monteiro said there’s evidence that students — both white and of color — who take ethnic studies are more likely to graduate than those who don’t.
Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, chair of the Department of Africana Studies, said she felt backed into a corner by the situation, and was already concerned about covering classes next year in light of upcoming faculty departures.
Pressure to run a department already on a bare-bones budget more efficiently doesn’t bode well for academic offerings, she said.
“When you say you can’t afford to offer those classes, then the eventual effect will be that you don’t have a viable major,” Tsuruta said.
Jolivette estimated the college needed $500,000 to $600,000 more funding annually to remain viable and serve the needs of its students.
Les Wong, president of San Francisco State, said in an interview that the university is dedicated to the College of Ethnic Studies, and that it may well be underfunded as a result of recession-era cuts.
So he’s asked the college to work with him, saying that he will foot the $200,000 deficit this year in exchange for longer-term talks about the future. Previously, Academic Affairs, not the president, covered the additional expenditure.
“We’ve not asked them to repay that, all we’ve asked them to do is live within their current budget,” Wong said. “The whole university is stressed.”
Monteiro agreed that the entire campus is strapped for cash, saying that the College of Ethnic Studies, with its four relatively small departments and one additional program, is probably the “canary in the coal mine.”
That’s why it’s important to have real conversations about its future and not continue to slap $200,000 “Band-Aids” on it here and there, he said. And those conversations probably need to include the taxpayers and policy makers who see the value in increasing funding for public education, he added.
“We live in a state with an almost obscene amount of wealth, but everyone needs to pay their fair share of taxes to pay the bills of public institutions,” Monteiro said.