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SDSU President To Retire

Audio

Aired 8/30/10

SDSU President Stephen Weber announced that he will retire in July, 2011. Weber came to SDSU in 1996 as the university's 7th president. We'll talk about his accomplishments at the helm of the region's largest university and how the state's budget crisis is impacting public higher education.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): I’m Alison St John sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. When Stephen Weber became president of San Diego State University in 1996, he immediately began holding campus-wide meetings to listen to what people wanted as a vision for the future. That ability to listen and build on a vision has borne fruit. As President Weber prepares to retire next year, the university has improved its graduation rates, increased diversity, added Ph.D. programs and raised unprecedented amounts of private money to help offset the slumping state budget. So, President Weber, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN WEBER (President, San Diego State University): Good morning, Alison. Good to be here.

ST JOHN: So when you retire next year you’ll be 69, still full of vim and vigor.

WEBER: Well, I will be 69.

ST JOHN: Why did you – So why did you decide to retire next year?

WEBER: Well, actually we had mindlessly assumed we would retire at 65 and as we approached that age we were having a good time, we loved San Diego State, it just seemed to make some sense to stay a little bit longer. So at that time, we said we’ll do another four years. And I announced it to the faculty and staff because I thought they had a right to know what my intentions were. So there’s nothing magic about 69 anymore than there was about 65, but it’s a good thing. That’ll be 15 years. It’s time for somebody else to come in with some new ideas.

ST JOHN: Good. So a bit of a sort of transition time, hopefully, as we come out of the budget crisis eventually.

WEBER: Yes.

ST JOHN: Yeah. So one of your accomplishments over the past 14 years was to raise the university’s academic achievements, and grade point averages have gone up from 3.18 back in 1996 to 3.63 this year. So obviously it is more competitive now to get in but what are the strategies…

WEBER: Much more.

ST JOHN: …that you put into place that have helped.

WEBER: Well, you mentioned that when I came we did a lot of listening and one of the questions we asked our faculty and staff was should we control our enrollments? We’re educators. We get our satisfaction from providing educational experiences to young men and women but at that time we were over-enrolled by over 1,000 students and it was costing $7 million to provide services for them, which meant that we were thinning the soup for everybody else and compromising the quality of academic experience. So it was actually a very difficult choice. We spent about a year talking among ourselves, debating it in fora on campus, doing all those things. And we finally decided that we would control our enrollments. As soon as that happened, the applications started going up and up and up and up until we got to the point where we were second in the country in undergraduate applications.

ST JOHN: Hmm.

WEBER: So with that, with more applications, of course, our student body became more competitive because we chose the ones that were most – the best paired.

ST JOHN: The good ones.

WEBER: Yeah.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. So, you know, now we’ve come to a situation this year where not everyone who wants to get in can get in and the semester begins today. How many people – how many applications did you get this year and how many are actually arriving?

WEBER: We had 62,300 applications and we’re going to enroll about 6,000 new students, that’s both transfer students and freshmen. So it’s been true for many years that not everybody that wants to get in can get in but this year was particularly difficult because not only did we have record applications in terms of the number wanting to get in but we had to reduce the number of slots available because of the budget cuts in the state of California. Our budget, in terms of state funds, was reduced by $55 million last year, $18 million the year before that and across the CSU we are reducing enrollments because we just don’t have the people to provide the services. In the case of San Diego State, in rough terms, we’re reducing the student body from 35,000 down to 30,000 which is just a human tragedy, both for the individuals that are turned away but also for the longterm needs of the state of California.

ST JOHN: So one in ten of the students who applied actually got a place.

WEBER: Yes.

ST JOHN: Yeah. So you’re talking about the budget and how you’ve had so many cuts, how has that actually affected – apart from enrollment, how has that actually affected the campus. How have you dealt with that?

WEBER: Well, it’s affected the campus in a number of ways. First of all, most of our employees had furloughs. That meant that they took, in effect, a 10% budget cut. It also meant that it was harder and harder to provide the services that we normally would want to provide. We have not been able to purchase some of the equipment that we normally purchase or to start some of the programs that our state desperately needs.

ST JOHN: For example…?

WEBER: Well, the classic cases are some of the doctoral programs that we’ve had to put on hold. We’ve got three doctoral programs in engineering coming up. Again, just think, the high tech future of California…

ST JOHN: Yes.

WEBER: …and we have all the abilities to do these programs and yet we don’t have the resources yet. So I’m very – I expect that this budget is going to turn around soon. My hope is, and this is just luck, but my hope is that my predecessor will come in on a budget upswing and that will be – I shouldn’t – predecessor…

ST JOHN: Your successor. Yes.

WEBER: …successor will come in on a upswing and that will be very helpful because it’s hard to come into a new place and have to make negative decisions. But I will be building the budget for next year which I hope will be the turnaround and then from then on he or she’ll be in a position, I hope, to make positive decisions.

ST JOHN: So one of the things that is very popular here in San Diego was the decision that was made to allow local students who qualified, who met a certain grade point average, to guarantee them entry so that local San Diegans felt they really did have a place at San Diego State University. As a result of the budget cuts, I believe you’ve had to either reduce or eliminate that program. So many people who thought they would be qualified are not getting a place.

WEBER: That’s true.

ST JOHN: Is that…

WEBER: That’s true. And it’s part of the overall withdrawal of state funds that has affected everybody. We set a goal for ourselves, historically 37% of our incoming freshmen had been local. We set a goal that in spite of the budget cuts we would at least meet that level. We, in fact, got to 42%...

ST JOHN: Hmm.

WEBER: …so we did well on that. But to give you a sense of it—and I’m going to talk just about qualified applicants the state of California says are qualified to come here, we turned away 24,260 CSU eligible applicants, about 1,000 of whom were from San Diego.

ST JOHN: So about half of them were from – No? Two thousand…

WEBER: No, no, no, no. Listen, 24,000…

ST JOHN: Oh, 24,000…

WEBER: 24,000

ST JOHN: Oh, so still the local students had a…

WEBER: Yes. Most of the people that are turned away – and the local students actually got extra points given to them to help them compete.

ST JOHN: So you are still providing a bit of a benefit for local students to give them a leg up to get in.

WEBER: We are. But we would like, frankly, to make educational opportunities available to those 24,000 well-qualified students. We had a master plan proposal to increase the size of San Diego State. It was approved several years ago. This is not a case where our reduction is because we don’t have applicants. So as soon as the budgets recover, we’ll be able to grow the student body again. In fact, pending before the legislature right now is a governor’s request that would include some restoration of monies to the California State University system. If that happens, we’ll enroll some new students in the spring semester.

ST JOHN: So for students who are thinking ahead, it could be something that’ll be restored, and what kind of grade point average would they have to meet in order to become eligible for that program if it’s restored?

WEBER: Well, if you think about the current year, as you said, high school grade point average of 3.63, SATs, average SATs of 1085. It’s hard to answer the question what will it be because the standards are a function of how many applicants and how many spaces. We won’t know how many applicants and we won’t know how many spaces so it changes every year but my sense is that that’s a pretty good benchmark for what it’ll take in the future.

ST JOHN: That’ll be in the upper threes, if you’ve got a hope.

WEBER: Yeah.

ST JOHN: Yeah. So now one of the things that has happened while you’ve been at San Diego State University is that you’ve raised an unprecedented amount of private money for the university, more than $65 million last year compared to just $18 million when you first came in.

WEBER: Umm-hmm.

ST JOHN: Do you – How much of this is in response to fewer dollars from the state? Is the private sector stepping up?

WEBER: You know, I – maybe some of that. For example, we had a wonderful scholarship campaign called Fuel Potential to help support our students. We raised some money, over $5 million, to help with that. But I think it’s a different thing, actually. I would like to believe that San Diego State has been very responsive to the needs of our community and the greater needs of California. So we’ve put in – Let’s – For example, new programs like hospitality and tourism because it’s the 3rd largest industry in San Diego, or construction engineering management or nurses now to produce more nurses. And as we have responded to the needs of San Diego, I think, in turn, they’re – very generously responded to support us and to support those programs.

ST JOHN: So do you see that as being the future of public universities? That they’re becoming more of a sort of public-private partnership, really, aren’t they?

WEBER: Oh, yes, absolutely.

ST JOHN: Yeah.

WEBER: The withdrawal of state support is absolutely unprecedented. The only way to provide the real excellence that these young men and women deserve is to supplement what the state can do with more private funding.

ST JOHN: So now just before the campus opened for a new academic year, we had a bit of a hot week last week. And the pipe broke and all the air-conditioning was out.

WEBER: Oh, it was… Yes.

ST JOHN: It was hot here on campus, right?

WEBER: It was terrible, wasn’t it?

ST JOHN: A good thing it’s fixed now.

WEBER: A good thing.

ST JOHN: But are you concerned at all about there being older infrastructure on the campus?

WEBER: Oh, yes. You know, one of the things that happens not just at San Diego State but throughout our society is we have not made the investments in our infrastructure that we should be making and these investments catch up with us. Now in the case of the break last week, we’re still trying to understand what happened. This was a 24” pipe and it shattered, a hundred feet of that pipe basically shattered. So a lot of very bright consulting engineers are trying to understand what caused that problem. But, fortunately, we don’t have to wait to get the air-conditioning back up and running but, of course, now that we have it up and running, it’s a delightfully cool day.

ST JOHN: But there has been a lot of money spent on new building. Anyone who comes to campus can’t fail to notice. There’s actually a lot of building going on right now around the campus.

WEBER: Yes, we have spent about $650 million in the time I’ve been here but interestingly enough, only 23% of that money has come from the citizens of California. So most of that money has been privately raised or it’s been the result of students voting fees to do new construction. We have a wonderful new – We had the first student union in the California State University system. It’s very, very old and tired now. Our students voted to replace it with a new LEED-Platinum student center. We’ll start construction on that next summer. So you’re right, there’s lots of construction going on as part of a healthy, vibrant campus.

ST JOHN: There was one project that didn’t go through, the El Paseo development project.

WEBER: That’s right.

ST JOHN: I believe that you pushed very hard for…

WEBER: Yes.

ST JOHN: …and that didn’t go through. Do you see a time in the future when conditions might change that would make that viable?

WEBER: I do. I do. We’re going to – we have reconceived that project. We’re going to be coming out with EIRs on the new project so the need hasn’t changed. I mean, the need hasn’t changed. This is a case where we believe we can do something that’s good for our neighborhood, that’s good for our community and it’s good for our campus and its students so we’re going to continue to try to do that. It will provide more housing for students. It will provide service and things like that. And, again it will not be a publicly funded project.

ST JOHN: And in the minute we have left, what are you really going to focus on in this last year of your tenure?

WEBER: Well, it’s a hard thing to say because, of course, part of the excitement is that you never quite know. Like pipes bursting and other things, you focus on what presents itself. But, in fact, San Diego State has become a very different campus than it was when I came here. And I think it’s going to be very important that we set up a positive transition for my successor. So a lot of what I’m going to be doing is trying to put the tools in place, put the resources in place, make sure that I don’t hand that person an unviable budget, for example, all those things so that he or she can really hit the ground running and have a successful presidency.

ST JOHN: Great. Well, thank you so much, President Weber, for spending this time with us this morning.

WEBER: Always a pleasure.

ST JOHN: And stay with us here on These Days. Coming up in the next segment, we’ll be talking about what on earth is happening to the real estate market here in San Diego.

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