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Between classes, work, clubs and weekend beach trips, it can be difficult for Cal Poly students to pay attention to what’s going on around campus.
Every day, administrators and faculty make decisions affecting more than just what goes on in the classroom. Many of these decisions go unnoticed by the student body, but two recent issues piqued its interest.
In Winter 2012, as the school began to cope with millions of dollars in state budget cuts, administrators polled students on their interest in a “Student Success Fee” aimed to “support the university’s high-quality academic and student-life programs and Learn By Doing curriculum.” Then in Fall 2012, Cal Poly weighed the possibility of moving from quarters to semesters.
If you missed the two issues as they played out, here’s a recap:
Keeping Cal Poly “special”
With hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts to the California State University (CSU) system, Cal Poly was beginning to feel the pain: some janitorial services stopped, staff took furloughs and Cal Poly was letting some retirees go unreplaced. Tensions were also high with the faculty union, which went on strike at two campuses and was considering doing the same at the rest of them — including Cal Poly.
Then outgoing provost Robert Koob presented the Student Success Fee, an effort administrators said would preserve the high-quality education Cal Poly students expect. The decision to implement the fee came down to Armstrong and then-CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, but the president asked students for an advisory vote first.
What students were voting on was a new quarterly fee that would supplement the university’s budget with between approximately $11 million and $14 million per year. University officials said the fee would at least offset systemwide cuts and added that it might encourage donors to invest more in the university after seeing dedication from its students to fund their own education.
The president kept mostly quiet during months of debate about the Student Success Fee, saying he didn’t want to influence the advisory vote, but he and other administrators privately supported it. Associate Vice Provost Kimi Ikeda, who made dozens of presentations about the fee, repeatedly said it was necessary to keep Cal Poly “special.”
In the vote, students narrowly approved the Student Success Fee with 57 percent in favor and 43 percent against. Thirty-two student groups also submitted endorsements for it, Cal Poly reported, while only one was formally against it.
Less than a month later, Reed and Armstrong approved the Student Success Fee.
Today, all students pay an additional $210 per quarter, which is the second stage of its phase-in that began in Fall 2012. The fee will cap at $260 per quarter in Fall 2014.
A 13-person committee, co-chaired by the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) president and the university’s vice president of finance, approves a budget each year for the fee. Seven of the committee members are students.
The fee has mostly paid for opening classes and Learn By Doing initiatives so far. Tangible results have been difficult to measure because Cal Poly combines the money with other university budgets and does not track exactly how it is spent, but the university issues a quarterly report outlining the spending and impacts of the fee.
Despite a better outlook for Cal Poly’s fiscal future than when the fee was passed in 2012, university leaders still see it as not just important, but necessary. Former Vice President of Finance Larry Kelley said in May that though funding from the state will likely increase in coming years, Cal Poly isn’t considering lowering or scrapping the fee anytime soon.
“A fair compromise”
Though Cal State administrators sided with the student majority on the Student Success Fee, they took a different route on the issues of semesters and quarters.
Cal Poly, one of the six universities in the CSU using quarters, publically toyed with the idea of converting for nearly a year. Despite heavy resistance among students and a public statement against semesters from Armstrong, negotiations between the president and Chancellor Timothy White — who came to lead the university system in January — led to the decision that the university would begin conversion “by the end of the decade.”
The plans at Cal Poly began with private conversations between Armstrong and his staff about increasing pressure from the CSU system to make the switch to semesters. In one of his first public discussions about semesters, Armstrong called the pressure a “soft mandate” from the CSU, adding that no decision would be made until the six quarter campuses reviewed what it would take to convert.
The campus’s initial reaction was passionately pro-quarters, and the Cal Poly community showed administrators little sympathy in open forums about the issue. Several students and faculty questioned the president and other Cal Poly leaders for not standing up to the chancellor to preserve quarters, which they said benefit the university.
Armstrong commissioned a task force to examine semesters in Fall 2012. The task force ultimately wrote a 135-page report advising the president not to convert. Among the reasons was a price tag the task force estimated would be between $18 million and $21 million.
The task force also cited survey data in its report showing 81 percent of students were against semesters, while 10 percent favored converting.
The report, though, wasn’t enough for the president to firmly support staying on quarters. Instead, he asked for formal recommendations from the two primary governing boards at Cal Poly: ASI and the Academic Senate, which represents faculty.
After more than an hour of debate among the student government Board of Directors, ASI agreed to hold a student vote. The vote, which followed a much-hyped information campaign by ASI, showed even more extreme opposition to semesters than the task force’s report: Roughly 89 percent of those who voted supported quarters, and 9 percent wanted to change to semesters.
ASI formally backed quarters after the vote, and the Academic Senate soon followed with an endorsement of the task force’s report, implicitly adding its support to quarters.
Since the task force’s report, Armstrong stayed mostly quiet on the issue of semesters. Before it, he publicly said he believed semesters were, in general, better than quarters. But as the debate heated up, he backed off his original hypothesis and said he would let the campus’s findings form his opinion.
On a Monday in March more than three months after the task force released its report, Armstrong opened up on the issue with an email to the university. He wrote that after months of discussions with White, the two decided to bring Cal Poly to semesters after all other CSU campuses converted. The process, he wrote, would begin some time by the end of the decade.
“I know that feelings about quarters vs. semesters on our campus run strong,” Armstrong wrote. “However, given the direction we have received, this is a reasonable approach.”
The direction he was referring to came from White, who, in spite of Cal Poly’s pro-quarter stance, maintained his philosophy that all CSU campuses should be on semesters. In a letter from Armstrong to White that the president’s office provided to Mustang Daily, the president recommended Cal Poly stay on quarters, admitting his original position had shifted since the debate began.
In an interview, Armstrong called the final plan a fair compromise between the university and the CSU system.
“In recognition of our Task Force Report, the student vote, the ASI Board of Directors’ vote, my recommendation, the campus-wide vote of the students, the Academic Senate — all of those factors — we were given more time,” Armstrong said in an interview immediately after his announcement. “We do not have to begin this decision until the end of the decade. We have a good six to eight years to work through and continue to focus on our goals.”
The chancellor’s office has so far declined to comment on the plan, saying a systemwide conversion is still under consideration but not yet decided on.
In an interview during White’s visit to Cal Poly in May, the chancellor said he didn’t realize there was so much resistance to semesters, adding he saw conversion as just “a project that needed to be finished up.”
Armstrong has continued to say he will encourage White to leave Cal Poly on quarters if the chancellor asks for his advice, but Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier said no further discussion took place on the issue of semesters during the summer.