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Don't link a cap on CSU presidents' salaries to graduation rates

Presidents are the public faces of their campuses and do not run the academic programs, so they have no direct control over graduation rates.

August 18, 2011|By James E. Sefton

The California State University system is reportedly considering a salary cap for campus presidents, perhaps with incentives tied to campus graduation rates.

Whatever its merits, any such cap should not be linked to graduation rates, a subject over which presidents have no direct control and one that can be misleading.

Presidents are the public faces of their campuses. They do not run the academic programs. Admission requirements are established by law, which obliges campuses to admit increasing numbers of students who, on paper, are "qualified" but who, on arrival, soon prove to be poorly prepared for university-level work. This discrepancy is something students, parents, politicians and the public often fail to understand.

Last year, for example, my large campus, Cal State Northridge, had to schedule 120 sections of remedial reading and writing, each limited to 20 students, at a cost of $6,500 a section. That's three-quarters of a million dollars. This problem is systemwide, so do the math for 23 campuses and see the amount of money not available for more classes to help seniors graduate on time.

Ever since this problem began decades ago (with the hope that it would only be temporary), faculty have complained that we shouldn't have to do this. But presidents are reluctant to lecture high schools (and parents) about their responsibility to narrow the gap between qualified and prepared.

Campus presidents also do not determine the nature and content of courses taught, the requirements for graduation or grading standards. These are, and must be, the exclusive province of the faculty. General education requirements are established by Title 5 of the California Education Code, but it remains for the faculty of history, kinesiology or engineering, for example, to say what a university degree in those disciplines requires. Certain majors also must meet certification standards established by professional organizations beyond the campus.

Campuses are always concerned with graduation rates, and every CSU campus conducts ongoing studies of factors that influence them. Many of these studies are demographically or cohort-oriented, so that we can compare groups within the student population. These studies usually emphasize campus policies and practices, like class scheduling and advisement opportunities, that seem to impede graduation. The result is a remedy that may produce some small improvement. This satisfies the institutional mea culpa syndrome, which runs high among college administrators, while the larger problems that lie elsewhere remain untouched.

And campus presidents always talk about graduation rates. It is a staple subject for lists of initiatives, staff meetings, convocations, speeches and news releases. Public interest makes it so. However, the graduation rate percentage has become the dictatorship of the decimal point, which escalates, like the production quotas on the floor of a widget factory, into the driving force behind all university labor.

Fortunately, there is a growing faculty concern, not only within CSU but across the nation, that emphasis on graduation rates is leading to large class sizes inappropriate for ill-prepared students, reduced graduation requirements, lowered intellectual expectations and grade inflation. The polite term is "dumbing down."

Widespread public misunderstanding of graduation rates has paralleled in growth the consumerist philosophy of higher education. Students already come to campus as purchasers of goods they desire. So they think of education in the same terms. Colleges contribute to this by constant reference to students as "customers" who have to be "satisfied" and to the degree as a "product."

Several years ago, Cal State Northridge did a major study of graduation rates. Focus groups found that students who failed to graduate, or had academic difficulties, were working more hours than necessary to afford their education. Confirmation? Meander through any student parking lot. How many of the SUVs and overgrown pickup trucks are costing work hours that could be study hours? Rising tuition costs will make even more stark the clash between priorities.

A class day at a university is an intellectual experience, just as a visit to a gym is a physical experience. Both require effort and determination because the result has to be built by the individual. It is not simply given because money changes hands. Students do not buy their degrees, and they do not pay for classes. The only thing they pay for is the opportunity to prove that, at graduation, they have earned the right to be called a "university-educated" man or woman.

Essentially, a university is a place where you have to earn your way in, and then earn your way out. The rite of passage is not always seamless. Some take longer to do that than others. Some cannot do it at all.

Universities have changed a great deal since the California Master Plan of the 1960s. But in one obligation, they cannot change. If democracy is to survive, we must have a citizenry capable of meeting the problems and needs of the 21st century. Success, in turn, requires graduates who are capable in four critical processes: to read, to write, to think and to articulate. Seat time, without intellectual effort, does not count.

University students come from a variety of backgrounds, and they bring a variety of experiences and problems. We know these factors influence graduation rates. But we also know that each student's personal graduation rate will be enhanced if the campus experience receives the level of effort and discipline that it deserves. The university president's salary is not part of the equation.

James E. Sefton has been a professor of history at Cal State Northridge since 1965. The views expressed here are his own.

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