Sonoma State University's president told students Thursday to press Gov. Jerry Brown to stop cutting and to restore funding to the state's public higher education system.

"This is a self-inflicted wound that will have great repercussions in this state," Ruben Armi?na said, urging students to focus their activism on the governor over legislators. "Usually, what the governor proposes is 98 percent of what the budget is."

He spoke at a campus gathering of about 25 students who have joined in a statewide campaign to protest budget cuts that have led to higher tuition, larger classes and the layoffs of thousands of lecturers.

The state has slashed $750 million from the California State University budget in the past year and another $200 million cut is threatened if voters reject proposed tax hikes in November. SSU's state funding has dropped about $50 million since 2008, to $46 million.

CSU tuition has climbed to $5,472 a year from $1,428 in 2001. At SSU, including fees, full-time students now pay $6,862 a year.

Commenting later on Thursday's smaller-than-hoped-for showing, Armi?na said students must assert themselves more strongly in the politics.

"They feel powerless and when you feel powerless you don't participate," he said.

"They're not powerless but they're not very good at exercising their power through the ballot box," he said. "Members of the legislature know that they don't have to fear them."

Dubbed the Bucks Start Here, to emphasize the economic benefits of an educated workforce, the student-led protest campaign is built around a symbolic collection of faux $650 million bills on which students have written how budget cuts have hit them.

Associated Students president Alex Boyar said SSU students have contributed 850 stories to the mound of blue notes piled in a clear, plexiglass cube making its way around CSU's 23 campuses.

"It's really a desperate situation," Boyar said.

"I haven't been able to get all the classes I need to graduate in a timely manner," said one speaker, fifth-year senior Ashley Yarbrough, sounding a frequent theme.

Another speaker, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, said the bachelor's and master's degrees she had earned at Chico State and SSU had enabled her "to do the things I've been able to do to serve the community."

Now, she said, the governor is "dismantling" the higher education system that his father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, governor from 1959 to 1967, helped build into one of the world's most respected.

"Tell the governor that this is not acceptable," Zane said.

As the rally wound down, one organizer waylaid a student passing by Stevenson Hall to class, encouraging her to tell her story on a faux bank note.

Julia Ramos, a sophomore, took the opportunity, writing, "I can't graduate on time because I can't get enough classes."

Asked how she knew that already, Ramos gave an answer that could be taken as a measure of the lowered expectations now commonplace on campus.

"I'm assuming," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or