Cal State Northridge's announcement last week that it would hire an auditor and update antiquated accounting systems was a welcome--and long overdue--response to financial questions dogging the school for months.
Campus officials said the improvements would be phased in over the next three years and could cost millions of dollars. They would include the hiring of a full-time auditor and the purchase of new software to track and coordinate the school's more than 300 separate accounts. These accounts now fall under separate control--an unacceptably common practice on most Cal State campuses.
The reforms announced Wednesday follow findings that federal disaster money was used to move the office furniture of CSUN President Blenda Wilson's husband. Louis Fair Jr. hired university workers to move furniture for a company of which he is executive vice president. A federal audit confirmed that Federal Emergency Management Agency money earmarked for earthquake repairs was used to rent the moving truck and concluded that Wilson exerted "undue influence" over the workers, who were paid by the school on the days the move was conducted.
Although that was the most recent incident, CSUN has suffered a series of embarrassing financial mistakes since The Times revealed in 1997 that the school could not accurately track employees and campus clubs owing the university money. As a result, more than $675,000 went uncollected--much of it written off as bad debt. A few months later, The Times reported that CSUN was improperly snatching tax refunds owed to students listed as debtors. Problem was, at least 10% of those on the list had current balances with the university.
For a public university such as CSUN, safeguarding public resources ought to be second only to the education of students. When slipshod accounting puts public money in jeopardy, those paying the bills understandably lose faith in important institutions. To their credit, CSUN administrators recognize this, but they have been slow to act. Some of the statements made last week sound suspiciously like the promises made last year--yet evidence of financial confusion continues to grow.
Last week's improvements should help, but only if the auditor is given the power and responsibility to ferret out inefficiencies and mistakes campuswide. Likewise, computer upgrades work only when responsibly implemented. The last thing CSUN needs is to spend millions on software that won't work.
The credibility of the San Fernando Valley's only four-year public university lies in the ability of its leadership to clean up the sort of sloppy, inefficient systems that pervade the entire Cal State system. Bureaucratic procedures may have worked when cash was flush, but in this era of fewer dollars and higher expectations, Wilson and her subordinates must reshape CSUN to operate more efficiently.