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Tribulations and renovations 

Cal Poly officials don't like to talk about where scarce dollars are going

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong’s new house is an elegant combination of contemporary West Coast elements and classic mission-style architecture.

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

Walking through the ornate wooden front door, one first notices the stone entryway, the smell of newly laid flooring and fresh paint. Exposed wooden beams reveal the structure of the four-bedroom, 3 1/2 bath, 1928-mission-style home, located on a well-manicured hillside on the southern edge of campus.

Though the 5,089-square foot house is indeed old, it’s been very fashionably remodeled.

It feels expensive.

And expensive it is. The bathrooms, for instance, have been redone for $29,455—and $13,722 of that was just for tile. Lighting fixtures—15 of them in craftsman style—were replaced for more than $11,000. For $5,000, the trees got a good trimming, and another $5,000 has been spent on pathway lighting.

On a recent warm afternoon, the president showed off his new digs to the press. Although the invite had only gone out a mere 24 hours prior, a mishmash of the county’s local media clamored at the chance to see the show.

Armstrong and wife Sharon led the press through every room of the house: bedrooms, bathrooms, the laundry room. Even a few curious department heads slipped into the line of visitors. “Nice,” one said, pointing and nodding. “Very nice.”

Building 51—the University House—is known to most Mustangs as the president’s house. The newly hired Armstrong announced early on that he would live on campus, becoming the first resident of the house since former president Warren Baker hightailed it to an off-campus house in 2004.

At the time of Armstrong’s hiring, university officials told members of the press that University House renovations—planned and commenced before the previous president’s departure—would cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

In late April, however, as construction was wrapping up, New Times heard that the university might have publicly low-balled that figure. We asked the university’s Public Affairs Office for the total cost of remodeling the president’s house, from start to finish.

After a number of exchanges, Stacia Momburg, Cal Poly’s head spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that “the cost of the project is $146,000.” However, other documents and information gleaned from interviews indicated the remodeling work cost substantially more. New Times staffers then officially submitted public information requests, seeking itemized documentation for the specific costs of the University House renovations.

After more than two weeks of requesting information and interviews—and just two days before the requested records were to become available for inspection—the university sent out an invitation to all local media for the Building 51 open house. There, New Times’ requested records—including the itemized listing of expenses from the house’s construction project—were disseminated for all the press to share.

According to the new documentation, the actual cost of renovating the house was $337,000—more than $191,000 dollars greater than what the university had previously released to the press and the public. The new total included many house projects started after Armstrong had been selected for the position—including most of the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen upgrades, which cost $150,066.

Armstrong had said earlier in a sit-down with New Times that he and his wife were involved in a few selections for the house, such as lighting and paint color, but many were “normal” improvements typically made between tenants.

The University House hasn’t been the only expensive improvement made on campus in recent months.

Official figures on these tax-dollar-funded projects were less than readily available.

New Times also requested information on upgrades made to the president’s box at the Performing Arts Center, including one “motorized velour acoustic curtain,” which internal Cal Poly documents indicate was ordered in November 2010 at a cost of $31,884. The very existence of the box was denied by hardball-playing records custodians until an actual room number was referenced—PAC 201B—as part of a public records request.

click to enlarge THE GRAND TOUR :  Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong (center, back to the camera) shows local media what $337,000 in renovations looks like. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • THE GRAND TOUR : Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong (center, back to the camera) shows local media what $337,000 in renovations looks like.

Nor did the university immediately acknowledge the existence of a presidential suite at the Spanos stadium—though the existence of such a room, even by its informal name, isn’t just common knowledge. It’s visible from the stands.

“Not sure what is meant by the ‘suite,’” university officials said in another e-mail.

Internal documents indicate that pricey copper countertops—installed by the Bakers—were ripped out of the stadium suite and replaced at an estimated cost of $17,334. Vice President for Administration and Finance Larry Kelley said the costs were for Americans with Disabilities Act modifications to the counter. However, all other ADA modifications to Spanos suites had started nine months prior, and again, the countertop replacement only began in February, after Armstrong became president. As of press time, that copper hadn’t been placed for sale on the campus surplus sale website.

Armstrong said he had nothing to do with either renovation project.

Though Cal Poly is a state school and theoretically an open and transparent institution, gathering information—or even finding university officials willing to talk to reporters—was difficult. Requests for detailed information were answered with only summaries. Some preliminary information provided later turned out to be misleading or false when compared with internal documents or statements by university officials.

Most requests for interviews with administrators were referred to the Office of Public Affairs. Professors and staff members who did speak said many employees work in a climate of fear and intimidation. They said they’ve been told not to speak to the press without authorization.

“We’ve been told by supervisors not to talk to the press or else,” said a campus staffer who insisted on anonymity. “I only have a few years until retirement, and it would be really bad if I was laid off in the next round of budget cuts because I was found talking with a reporter.”

One professor explained that because of budget cuts, everyone at Cal Poly feels vulnerable.

“It doesn’t surprise me no one wants to talk to you,” said the professor. “No one wants to rock the boat, especially when their job could be on the line.”

The professor said faculty were slowly being replaced by non-tenured lecturers, and teacher-to-student ratios were increasing in many areas of study.

“The money is getting stretched too thin, and students are getting the short end of the stick,” the professor said.

click to enlarge MOVIN’ ON UP :  The Cal Poly University House was spruced up in time for new University President Jeffrey Armstrong to move in. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • MOVIN’ ON UP : The Cal Poly University House was spruced up in time for new University President Jeffrey Armstrong to move in.

Money ain’t what it used to be

If the present seems an inopportune time to be oohing and aahing over a home remodeled on the taxpayers’ collective dime, that may be because it is—at least to an incoming freshman class bracing for unprecedented student fees and significantly fewer choices when it comes to crafting an educational path.

The California State University System was originally created in 1961 to provide a low-cost, yet high-quality education for California citizens. That education was essentially free: Tuition cost only $105 in the 1965-66 academic year, and the state pledged to pay the vast majority of university costs, a relatively easy commitment when it was flush with cash. Though tuition rose sharply in the 1970s and 1980s, the costs for students were still reasonable. Today, the state government is pulling back its commitment to public higher education, and students are increasingly on the hook for a larger portion of the cost.

As the state Legislature and governor try to come to terms with an out-of-control budget, CSUs are bracing themselves for the steepest cuts in their history. Already looking at previous cuts that have sapped the university of its state funding, Cal Poly is evolving into a smaller, leaner institution.

Four years ago, the state paid for most of Cal Poly’s expenses: $150 million of a $228 million budget. Officials have now been told that the state will further cut an additional 18 percent—$20 million—from last year’s support level. If the governor and the Legislature can’t get an extension of expiring tax hikes, California may be experience a rare “all cuts” budget. Should that happen, Cal Poly will have to deal with the loss of an additional $20 million. As it stands, the campus administration will likely receive from the state only $99 million of a projected $210 million budget.

The last few years’ reductions have already dramatically impacted two central segments of Cal Poly’s population: teachers and students. Today, there are fewer of both. In 2006, for example, there were 624 tenure-track faculty, according to university figures. Now there are 609. In 2006, there were 461 lecturers—now there are 417.

The student population is also dropping. That population maxed-out with 19,777 students in 2007. In 2010, the number was 18,360 and is likely to decline further.

At the same time, another population on campus has remained relatively strong: managers and supervisors. According to CSU documents, there were 146 managers and supervisors at Cal Poly in 2004. Their numbers grew to 183 in 2008. In the last three years, there’s been a “selective hiring freeze,” and the administration has used attrition to reduce the numbers. There were 163 such positions in 2010.

And while pay for Cal Poly professors and workers has been frozen since 2009, one job category has enjoyed dramatic pay increases: executives. In fact, pay for CSU executives shot up more than 69 percent from 1998 to 2011. Former Cal Poly president Baker received $253,440 in 2004, then $328,209 in 2007 until his retirement in 2010—not to mention a $60,000 housing allowance after vacating the University House in 2004.

The new Cal Poly president is continuing that tradition, earning $350,000 a year, a $12,000 annual car allowance, and an additional $30,000 from the University Foundation, a nonprofit entity that manages the school’s donations and endowments. CSU officials say high executive salaries are necessary to attract the very best, as well as maintain the prestige of the CSU system.

click to enlarge FIRST COUPLE :  University President Jeffrey Armstrong and wife Sharon fielded questions from reporters during a media-only tour of the newly remodeled University House. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FIRST COUPLE : University President Jeffrey Armstrong and wife Sharon fielded questions from reporters during a media-only tour of the newly remodeled University House.

“Regarding pay, I’m honored and humbled to be in this position,” Armstrong said. “I’m going to work hard and provide the value, the return on investment that the taxpayers expect.”

There is money pouring into the campus, but it’s not being used to provide more classes or instruction for students. Though Cal Poly is financially strapped, a gargantuan $131,497,000 construction project is blooming in the middle of the campus: A new science complex, stocked with lecture halls, lab rooms, and faculty offices, is set to accommodate the university’s recent enrollment growth. When the project was originally planned, enrollment was still rising.

Nearby, the Student Recreation Center is expanding to provide “exercise area, relocation of racquetball courts, a 2-court gym, a multi-activity center, jogging track, leisure pool, and new administrative offices” at a cost of $71,128,000. Complaints by students that their fees, which allow for access to the center, haven’t decreased during its construction have fallen on deaf ears.

Learn by doing what you can with what you’ve got

Some critics feel that the university is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into construction projects when that money could better be used to cushion budget cuts and bolster the university’s bottom line.

“It may look that way, but not a penny of it came from the state. It’s what we call a self-supporting enterprise project,” Cal Poly Provost Robert Koob said when asked about the seeming contradiction of building during a time of cuts.

Koob is the chief academic official at the university, and his office overlooks the new science complex. “Does it make sense? No. Shouldn’t you be spending the money on education first? Yes. Would we? We tried to, but the state says no.”

Koob said various construction projects over recent years were paid for with a mixture of state bond sales and private support—not from some concerted effort to bilk students for the gain of the university.

“We think projects are great. Projects are important to public education. So we don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “People just have to understand that there are rules around where the sources of money come from.”

One of the questions New Times asked: How are such cuts decided on throughout the university’s different divisions and academic colleges? As the head of the Office of Academic Affairs, Koob tries to ensure that cuts are made in a way that reflects the university’s “core values”—that academics never take a back seat to, say, administration. In the institution’s history, he said, teaching functions have always taken a lower fraction of cuts than the rest of the university.

“Mold and Level,” the university’s across-the-board formula to allocate funds and distribute cuts, recognizes the range of costs to offer different courses. A lab component, for example, costs more money to teach than a lecture class, and larger classes cost less per student than smaller ones. As you move up in grade levels—freshman, sophomore, etc.—class expenses increase. The formula ensures that the engineering department, for example, never receives preferential treatment over, say, liberal arts.

“We don’t want any possibilities where favorites could be played,” Koob said.

Once monies for the academic division are in place, those dollars are then moved over to the deans of the different colleges for actual instruction. Each dean has his or her own way of allocating funding for each of the departments within the college.

click to enlarge PLANNING FOR UNCERTAINTY :  Even without a state budget to guide the university’s tough fiscal choices, Cal Poly Provost Robert Koob manages to mitigate budgetary shortfalls to maintain the academic quality of the university. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PLANNING FOR UNCERTAINTY : Even without a state budget to guide the university’s tough fiscal choices, Cal Poly Provost Robert Koob manages to mitigate budgetary shortfalls to maintain the academic quality of the university.

Over the last few years, Cal Poly has been forced to offer fewer electives—those classes that make for a well-rounded college experience, but aren’t essential to moving a student through to graduation.

Koob said it’s a “tough choice” between emphasizing the core courses that will take a student straight to a degree or allowing for an opportunity to explore a broader range of activities.

“The effect of the budget reduction is to diminish that choice,” he said. “So we aren’t diminishing the opportunity for kids to graduate; in fact, we’ve improved it—we have a higher retention and graduation rate now than we’ve ever had. But to do that, we’ve had to offer fewer choices in terms of the courses.”

Class availability and a student’s ability to explore different areas of study aren’t the only academic functions that have been sacrificed. Cal Poly has also been forced to tighten regulations on academic performance, while also trying to find a cost-effective way to cut down on the numbers of students reaching academic probation.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding where money is going to come from—and where it will ultimately end up—Koob said he’s hopeful about Cal Poly’s near future. And even though the jury’s still out logistically on the upcoming winter and spring quarters, the university has enough bank for the fall.

Armstrong, a self-described optimist, is relentlessly sunny about what the future holds for the highly esteemed polytechnic.

“The university has planned very well considering the circumstances,” he said. “The biggest problem we face is uncertainty. … If we avoid an all-cuts budget, I’m very optimistic. If we get into an all-cuts budget, it’s going to be tough, and I hope we don’t go there.

“The investment in an education in Cal Poly is still a great investment in the future,” he added. 

Staff writers Matt Fountain and Robert A. McDonald can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com and rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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