The Sonoma State University's academic senate held its annual start-of-the-year convocation Monday amid a sense of guarded optimism absent for many years.

In the past 12 months the economy has slowly improved. Voters passed a ballot measure tax to help fund higher education. The California State University has a new chancellor, Timothy White, with whom faculty representatives have a far better relationship. The tension that often gripped SSU's campus in the past decade continues to ease.

"Things could be a hell of a lot better, but they've been a hell of a lot worse," SSU political science professor Andy Merrifield, who is president of the California Faculty Association, said in his speech Monday to about 200 people in Weill Hall, the heart of the $140 million Green Music Center.

SSU's past year had its inevitable controversies: one involved racial slurs; another religious discrimination. Faculty members railed at how the administration handled the removal of asbestos from Stevenson Hall. The university also was sharply criticized when it shut down a free mental health clinic.

Still, the SSU community demonstrated it's ability to come together and define itself as it wants to be, suggested Faculty Chairwoman Margaret Purser, who spoke about how people can create places that are more than brick and mortar buildings by choosing what they want to do in those places and how.

Recalling the February incident when a black student employee in the dining hall found the N-word slur written on a Black History Month flier, Purser focused on what followed.

So many students, faculty members and staff showed up at a hastily convened evening meeting, she recalled, that it had to be moved "on the fly," with chairs gathered from other facilities and a larger room found, "remaking the place to fit the need."

"For the people who participated, and for many who heard about it all afterwards, these two linked events will always be part of what they remember" about SSUPurser said, "and what they think of when someone asks them, 'What kind of place is Sonoma State University?"

Also, the bitter divisions between the faculty and administrators clearly have narrowed or, at least, receded. And the hail of criticism directed at the cost of the Green Music Center has become a more occasional drizzle.

Purser last year called the Green Music Center "not a half-bad looking porch" and suggested it could serve as a place to come together. This year she was more explicit.

".<TH>.<TH>. We have all spent so much time fighting over bricks and mortar that we have, as a community, largely taken place-making for granted," she said.

Those battles had been "legitimate," she said, and she had joined in them. "But the war has been costly. And it is time to divert at least some of that energy and passion."

On the budget front, significant challenges remain, said SSU President Ruben Armi?na, even as he noted that the crunch had lessened due to the passage last November of Proposition 30, which raised sales and income taxes to restore funds to the UC, CSU, and community college systems.

The university's allocation from CSU this academic year is $49.4 million, up from $39 million last year but still less than the $56 million it received in 2010.

"While our financial situation is getting better, it is far from being adequate to fully meet our goals of retention, graduation and satisfaction," he said.

Also earning a mention was Rohnert Park's crackdown on rowdy parties for which, in many cases, SSU students are blamed.

"With a city of thin-walled suburban homes leaving our students facing continued restrictions from the community around us, and with a campus culture that seems to resemble a ghost town during the weekends and a retirement home during the week, now is the time to revise some aspects of our university," said student body president Mac Hart.

He called on faculty members to help change SSU'sculture in order to foster a "strong, thriving and vibrant campus" that, he said, is now lacking.

Purser also evoked the party issue in her speech about "place-making."

Noting how things other than people, from zoning ordinances and speed limits to landscaping fence heights, also create places, she added, "or how many parties you can have, and how big they can be."

In a later interview, she suggested that the faculty has a role in guiding students toward finding the correct balance between entertaining themselves and living in a community that has particular norms.

"I think it's something that's real and needs to be addressed," she said. "It's our job to help them become responsible adults."