The Daily Aztec met President Elliot Hirshman for an interview on Monday, March 17 after an offer was extended to discuss the passing of the Student Success Fee.
The Daily Aztec: Why did you choose to approve this fee?
Hirshman: On the campus and in the border community, no one is ever excited or happy about increasing tuition or fees, I think that’s a point I would make. We’re all in agreement that if we had alternative approaches, we wouldn’t want to raise fees.
Now the context that we find ourselves in is that since 2007 to now, and really culminating in 2011, we had a dramatic reduction in state appropriation. We went from $221 million down to $103 million. That reduction was not only very large in the history of San Diego State, but actually much larger than many of the other California public institutions. Since 2011, we’ve been able to get some additional support, so now our state appropriation is at $143 million, but that’s still a reduction of $78 million.
Since 2011, we’ve been thinking about ways to address that and the move the university forward and we have a strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” One of the most important parts of the plan is that we came up with resource and revenue plans. Everyone on the campus has aspirations and we really want to embrace those aspirations, so what we’ve done is come up with a plan where we focus to a great extent on cost efficiencies, being sure we’re doing things at the reasonable and appropriate cost, but at the same time we feel that we also have to focus on the revenue side.
Our approach to the revenue side has been to look at multiple diversified revenue streams, not just saying we’ll put it all on student tuition and fees not just saying we’ll do it all through fundraising, but rather, we’ll have a series of initiatives, each will contribute a piece of the puzzle. And $78 million dollars is a pretty big piece. So when we started talking about the revenue initiatives, one that came up on the plan was the idea of a student success or an excellence fee. What the plan encouraged us to do is to work with Associated Students on that.
I want to give you a little context because some of the details are probably not common knowledge. The way that tuition and fees are governed in the CSU is under an executive order, which is 1054. That order lays out five different types of fees.
The Daily Aztec: Yeah, the categories, right?
Hirshman: Exactly. The most to remain for our discussion are Category 1 fee, which are the mandatory tuition fees across the entire system, and those are set by the Board of Trustees. And then the Category 2, which is specific to each campus.
The Daily Aztec: Yeah, so the Student Success is a Category 2?
Hirshman: The Student Success Fee is a Category 2 fee, which are approved by the Chancellor under a very detailed and stringent set of approaches. That includes having a Campus Fee Advisory committee, having various choices as to how you would pursue a fee – either through a referendum or an alternative consultation process and then a recommendation to me from CFAC, which I then either approve and forward, and the Chancellor then makes a decision or not.
The Daily Aztec: Ok, so, kind of on that topic, why did you choose to do the alternative consultation instead of the more traditional referendum?
Hirshman: The Campus Fee Advisory Committee. which is led by the student body president, and has a majority of students on the committee, they had to make a choice point between should we do a referendum or should we do an alternative consultation? The committee discussed, at length, the pluses and minuses and I think what they came down on ultimately is that when you think about the complexity of this issue, when you think about the history of tuition in California – and I think there’s some information on the blog about that may be helpful – when you think about how politicized some of those issues are and you think about need on the campus for resources to be successful, they really felt that the alternative consultation approach was the better one. It would give students an opportunity to see all the pluses and minuses rather than it becoming a political football or some kind of election.
I think you did see that there were efforts to politicize this as opposed to evaluating it on its merits. I think there was a presence there from the students. They recommended to me, by a majority vote, that we pursue alternative consultation, and I did endorse that and for much the same reason. I think we had a fuller, and more in-depth discussion. There’s nothing in alternative consultation that precludes any student from participating, every student has the right to participate. The process was extraordinary.
I do want to … However you feel about this, I do want to really commend the student leaders for their attention to detail, for their focus on getting information out. They had 39 different forums, they reached out to student groups, they prepared videos and pamphlets, so they did provide a great amount of detail.
An interesting reflection is that when the decision to go alternative consultation as opposed to referendum was made and publicized broadly, there was not a single protest at that moment. So, I think that says quite a bit about whether people found that to be a reasonable approach.
The Daily Aztec: Yeah, the timing of the protest was interesting. So kind of on on that vein, do you think that process did accurately represent students’ opinions? I mean, I know that it was about 1,500 people that went out, so it wasn’t necessarily even a majority and it might have been…
Hirshman: My sense is that the students did everything they possibly could do to reach out and engage with people and have different groups sponsoring. We always want more democratic participation. If you look at mayoral elections in San Diego, what you sometimes see is 10 or 15 percent participation. We’d always like to see more participation, but I in every way have to praise the students for making every possible effort to get students engaged. Obviously, over 1,000 students came for the forums. What was striking about it, of course, was that when given all the information, the vast majority of students, over 64 percent, voted for some level of fee. And I thought that was very telling.
Another point that I wanted to emphasize in addition to noting that the process was very focused on detail, was that the Campus Fee Advisory Committee voted 12-0 in favor of the fee. So that was the majority students voted for it, faculty and staff. The Staff Affairs Committee actually forwarded a letter of approval emphasizing their support for the fee. I think many voices are supportive of this.
The Daily Aztec: What exact date did you recommend the fee the Chancellor and what exact date did he approve it?
Hirshman: I forwarded it I believe on the third and then I think he signed it on the seventh. We did not get it until the twelfth, but he did sign it on the seventh.
The Daily Aztec: So why didn’t you make an announcement when you did recommend the fee?
Hirshman: So there are couple things about that. One is that Provost (Nancy) Marlin spoke at the University Senate and gave a progress report that we were supportive of the fee and that we’re moving it forward. Josh (A.S. President Josh Morse) also spoke at A.S. and I think even some of the students who were opposed to the fee actually evidenced the protest at that moment by yelling or screaming or something like that.
We were updating people. I felt it was better to have the collaborative discussions with the Chancellor while he was considering it, rather than engaging in a public debate as to its merits at that point. But we did keep people informed through the appropriate vehicles as to what the current status was.
The Daily Aztec: Can you explain, I know you were touching on a conversation with the Chancellor, how does that work? I know you recommend it to him and he has the final say.
Hirshman: Exactly. So the Chancellor has the final say as to whether or not to approve the recommendation. So we present that to him with the full information, in terms of we tell him about how many forums were held, how many students voted in each category, what the students voted in terms of each category, so then he has to put that all together to decide for this particular campus and all of its needs and its strengths, should we do this or not?
The Daily Aztec: So we’re the tenth campus to pass some kind of academic excellence fee?
Hirshman: I believe so.
The Daily Aztec: Kind of on the timeline of that, I know you had agreed to meet with three protesters on the third. So in the timeline of events, was that before you signed it or after you had signed it?
Hirshman: We had hoped to, hoped to meet with the protesters on Thursday. Unfortunately, when we had a meeting on Monday morning, which I believe was the third, we discussed with them. Their response was essentially, ‘We have a series of non-negotiable demands,’ and they were very, very extreme. At that point, I felt that we weren’t going to have a productive dialogue with them, and so we moved forward with the forwarding of the fee at that point.
The Daily Aztec: Ok so, do you think the protesters have been acting in an appropriate and respectful way? I know that’s probably a point of contention for the administration.
Hirshman: The first point I would emphasize is that the protestors have a right to express their opinion and we would strongly encourage them to do so. I think that the more substantial of a discussion we can have really focusing on the facts of the matter, the better that discussion can be. I, in many ways, resonate to concerns that the protestors raised, more importantly, about how any increase in tuition or fees can impact a student who faces a financial challenge.
And we have many students on our campus who do face financial challenges.
So we have done two things that are responsive to that. The first is, as was always intended, this fee will be implemented over a four-year period. For next fall, it will be an increase in $50.
To give you a sense of that, in terms of tuition and fees, that’s a 1.3 percent increase. It’s a lower increase than the rate of inflation.
The second piece of that is that we are going to create a hardship fund, so if any student feels that this $50 increase is going to jeopardize their continuing here, we’ll provide them with the appropriate financial aid forms to fill out and so on and then we will find a way to support that from other sources.
The Daily Aztec: So you’re working with A.S. to create the financial hardship fund?
Hirshman: We’ve talked with A.S. and they’re supportive of it. It’s not going to be A.S. money, but it will be from non-state funds.
The Daily Aztec: So where will that money come from?
Hirshman: Private donor funds, other auxiliary funds, perhaps. We haven’t specified a source for it yet, but we will as we move forward.
The Daily Aztec: Ok so, how many people roughly will that be able to fund?
Hirshman: It’ll depend on how many students actually have the hardship conditions.
The Daily Aztec: And how are you determining those?
Hirshman: Those will be set up by the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, so they’ll figure out, given a student’s situation financially, would the $50 be a hardship? The student then can fill out the form and if it is a hardship, then we’ll make sure that it’s taken care of.
The Daily Aztec: Do you have any idea about – I know it’s still in the process – but rough guidelines about for what would constitute the fee as an undue hardship, as you mentioned in your blog?
Hirshman: I would let the experts in financial aid work that out. We’ll just have to see. Students receive a variety of aid and then they’ll have to understand what that would mean to pay the extra $50.
The Daily Aztec: So you’re thinking mostly donors, but would there be any other sources where that money would be coming from?
Hirshman: There could be sources of other non-state funds.
The Daily Aztec: Because my understanding when I read your blog, and maybe I was confused, but I thought you were working with A.S. to create the funds through A.S.’s budget.
Hirshman: We were working with A.S. to make sure they were comfortable with that as an approach. One of the things that has in some ways, that is important to emphasize, the A.S. leaders who headed CFAC and have been involved in this process with us are the democratically elected representatives of the student body, so we always want to be respectful of that in any discussion with student groups.
The Daily Aztec: Yeah, so you’ve been working with the A.S. executive board?
Hirshman: No, no. Talking with Josh and the A.S. leaders, which is our normal way of pursuing it.
The Daily Aztec: Let’s see. On that same vein of financial aid, what about the middle class students who kind of fall through the cracks and don’t necessarily qualify for that financial aid, but still do have that struggle? How will you account for them and how the fee increase affects them?
Hirshman: The fee increase will affect those students and they will have to pay it. We are, of course, willing to work with students to help them think through it and see what’s the best way. There are a variety of tax breaks, both at the federal and state levels to benefit middle-class students, and we’ll be sure that people are aware of those to help them to impact that.
This is part of the challenge. How do you, in a fair and reasonable way, apportion the cost of education to the students, to the state support and so on? It’s not an easy dilemma when you have relatively limited state support.
The Daily Aztec: So do you think the burden of the fee on that demographic of students would be worth it in the long run? I know it will add …
Hirshman: I think that’s the critical question. Does the addition of the faculty and the course section produce the benefit to the students that compensates for the cost?
I think you can look at a couple of factors. One is that if we have more opportunities and courses, it will facilitate earlier graduation.
The question is would you pay $50 to get out a year early? Of course you would. That would make perfect sense.
That’s the question we’re wrestling with as we add these faculty members ¾ can we add them in the right places and the places where they will facilitate course offerings so students can graduate earlier and have more major offerings and things like that. That is the central question and obviously everyone in Academic Affairs is eager to work. They’re planning surveys of the students and so on to try to find out where are the areas they can add more faculty and have the most impact.
The Daily Aztec: Something when I attended a forum, and I asked (Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs) Kathy LaMaster about this, so they were talking about adding course sections in the summer as kind of an alternative to help people graduate faster because I know the offerings are a bit limited in summer. But, one of my concerns was that tuition is more expensive for units in summer. So what are you going to do to balance that with the fee?
Hirshman: These funds – yes, it’s always a good idea to add courses where there’s student demand, if there’s demand in summer, it’s a good idea ¾ but these funds are specifically for adding courses in the fall and spring semesters. There’s not going to be an additional charge for these courses, they will be part of the overall tuition and fees.
That’s an important question.
The Daily Aztec: So how will it be split up then in the summer? I know it’s in the there’s two sessions, will you have to pay an addition $200 for each session?
Hirshman: I don’t know how that’s going to work, whether there will be double fee in the summer.
The Daily Aztec: So that’s kind of just part of the implementation process?
Hirshman: Right, that’s an implementation detail.
The Daily Aztec: Ok, so what exactly goes to the Chancellor for what is the information that you provide?
Hirshman: As I mentioned earlier, the kind of documents are information about how CFAC voted and the information about those forums, information about the votes within the forums. Those are the central documents.
The Daily Aztec: That makes sense. So as I’m sure you are aware, one of the central complaints voiced by the protestors was the transparency of kind of the process and the fee recommendation. Do you think that the process was transparent?
Hirshman: So w hat we tried to do is provide information to constituencies and to move this forward as we have traditionally done, and I think we have accomplished that.
The Daily Aztec: So, if you were to do the process again, would you change anything about how it was implemented?
Hirshman: (Laughs) I think what’s important to understand about this is that this process is led by CFAC and my role in this as a decision maker is to both review the process that the committee conducted and then to look in an unbiased way as I can at the results of the various votes and input.
In my judgment, the Campus Fee Advisor Committee’s work was exemplary. They took every step as it was prescribed in the executive order in terms of making that decision between referendum and alternative consultation, they followed the alternative consultation process to the letter, they went above and beyond in terms of outreach and then they obviously codified the results in a very precise way. In terms of the process that the students led and CFAC led, I think it was exemplary.
In terms of evaluating the actual vote, 64 percent of the students who attended the forums and voted, voted for a fee of $200 or more. CFAC voted 12-0 with one abstention, in favor of it. In terms of evaluating, is there support for the fee, it’s overwhelmingly strong support.
The one question I’d ask you as you think about this is can you imagine a scenario where it would have been reasonable for a president, after reviewing the process and seeing that it’s exemplary, having the student input and seeing a majority in favor and then having a Campus Fee Advisory committee that voted 12-0, what would be the grounds for overturning that? I certainly don’t see any.
I think the process went as it should have gone, we gathered input as we should have and then we made a decision that the Chancellor ultimately endorsed.
The Daily Aztec: Ok so, why did you make the decision to announce the implementation over a blog rather than sending it out in a campus-wide email?
Hirshman: We haven’t traditionally announced fees. We wanted to find a way that could engage the campus community in a thoughtful discussion, not an inflammatory discussion, or a ‘Hey this is the way it is, that’s that.’ It’s more of a ‘Let’s think about these issues.’
The blog gave me the vehicle to talk about the history, to make sure people understood what the Executive Order was about, to help people understand the distinction between alternative consultation and referendum in a way that they may not have previously. And then to really lay out what the results were, because people may not have been fully aware of that.
The Daily Aztec: Why have fees not been announced in the past? I’m just kind of curious.
Hirshman: I don’t know what the tradition is on that, but we checked with other campuses, and they don’t announce them, and they put them in the catalogue and so on. But we felt that- and I don’t know I would say this is transparency, but we felt as a communication vehicle, it was important to continue a discussion.
These are issues that the campus is going to have to grapple with for the foreseeable future, and so in five or 10 years, this issue will come up again. Do we need to raise fees again? Or is it necessary? The next time we go into a recession if we face challenges from the state, this issue will come up again. So, I think it’s part of the culture and the maturation of the campus is to find productive ways to have this discussion. Sometimes, we may have it and say now’s not the right time for a fee. The advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages.
Other times, we may have it and say right now – and I think this is the case right now – that the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages. Moving us toward a culture where we can talk about tuition and fees in a reasoned, careful way is an important step. I hope the blog will at least be a step toward that, that people can see a slightly different perspective in terms of what tuition and fees are about at San Diego State.
The Daily Aztec: So what are you doing to kind of promote the blog and maybe raise awareness for those who may not know it exists?
Hirshman: We have sent it to many, many groups and I anticipate, certainty I can tell from the feedback I’m getting already that it is being widely read. We keep statistics on that so I’m sure once the process runs through, they’d be glad to share how many people have taken a look at it.
The Daily Aztec: Before you had mentioned kind of having that communication with the community and the student body. Do you feel that … I know you mentioned you thought the demands from the protesters were excessive…
Hirshman: I didn’t make any comment on their demands at all. I commented on their right to protest and then I endorsed. I don’t feel like I can categorize their demands in one basket. They asked for a variety of things, obviously, some of which were not things we could really respond to.
The Daily Aztec: I sat in on the drafting of the demands and they definitely were very thorough, I guess is something you could say. So kind of that same vein with communication and the student body and everything, do you feel that … I know you didn’t meet with them necessarily because you felt that he demands were outside of your reach?
Hirshman: Their demands were out of my reach in the sense that they asked me to do things that involved going beyond what the education code permits me to do and so on, but they rejected the offer for a meeting. We offered to meet with three representatives. They rejected that, and in place of that is when they gave us the more extensive set of demands.
I meet with students all the time. I had a group of students over to my house for pizza, the actual night before I was supposed to meet with them. We’re always meeting with students, we see students when we go to athletic events, so I’m glad to meet with a group of students, if it can be a productive discussion.
What I asked my vice president for and other advisors when any student group does want to meet is an assessment of could this be a productive discussion, will it be beneficial and obviously that’s somewhat in the eye of the beholder.
The Daily Aztec: Ok, can you give me kind of an overview of your experience with the process of passing the fee? I know this is the first fee you’ve been president for, since you became president in 2011. So can you tell me a little bit about your experience with the process?
Hirshman: I think the process went well. You have to understand that in the history of California, there was at one point in time a view in the master plan that there would be no tuition. That discussion forms the backdrop for any discussion of tuition and fees.
Where we are now is trying to move towards in a state that faces financial challenges and has relatively little funds to support higher education, in a system where other campuses face larger challenges than we do – how will the think about the balance between tuition and fees and state support going forward?
I don’t anticipate this being an issue that will come up in the near future, but I do think it will be an issue that the campus will have to grapple with again, let’s say in five years or 10 years, so it’s good that we start thinking about it in a reasoned way and a way that allows us to have productive discussion as opposed to slogans and politicization of it, because that’s not a productive answer. If we politicize the process, it doesn’t help us get to an understanding at this given moment of what the best decision is at this given moment.
The Daily Aztec: Do you have anything to add about the process or a reaction to anything that’s been going on campus?
Hirshman: No, no, no, think for the most part, people have been very thoughtful and they’ve tried to work through what are some very difficult issues, so I appreciate that.
Photo by Jordan Owen, Senior Staff Photographer