Ruben Armi?na went before state university trustees in the Glenn S. Dumke Auditorium in Long Beach last November and made a request that has become familiar to the CSU board over the past decade.
The Sonoma State University president asked for financing approval for a campus building project, this time for a $60.5 million student center.
His request was granted and SSU shot upward on the list of CSU campuses that are heavily in debt.
Since 2000, as new buildings including the Green Music Center and 21 student apartment buildings in complexes named for wine varietals sprouted on its campus, SSU's debt has soared to $223 million.
SSU, with just over 2 percent of the system's 347,000 undergraduate students, accounts for 6.75 percent of CSU's $3.3billion revenue bond debt. With 7,381 students, it is the 16th-largest of CSU's 23 campuses, but it is sixth in overall debt burden.
Including the student center, which students approved in an election last April and is now being built, SSU's debt has grown 355 percent since 2000, when it owed $49 million.
Students pay for the debt — through fees for housing and other campus services. Starting this year, with $300 in new annual fees for the student center, SSU students pay the fourth-highest package of annual tuition and fees in the CSU system, $6,862.
The debt load has grown through a calculated strategy to turn what was a commuter campus of older students 15 years ago into a residential campus where 3,100 students live. This year, 1,779 of SSU students, or 24 percent, are freshmen, compared to 11 percent in 1996.
"This institution would not be here today if not for the fact that we went into debt to build housing," Armi?na said.
"The local area does not produce enough college students to support the university. We needed to attract students from other parts of the state and these students need housing," he said.
Critics worry about future
But as the debt has risen, faculty critics have become concerned that the university is recklessly mortgaging its future.
"It just seems to me to be building toward something that another president, two, three, four, five years down the road, will not be able to pay," said history professor and social sciences dean emeritus Robert Karlsrud.
"It's very, very alarming," he said.
No one disputes that by any measure, SSU has a lot of debt, according to a Press Democrat review of all 23 campuses' financial statements.
The questions are whether it is too much, how it will be repaid and what it means to the school.
SSU's chief financial officer, Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, called the campus "highly leveraged," in a 2007 President's Budget Advisory Committee meeting.
But the debt, he said in an interview last month, is "completely and utterly appropriate given the condition" of SSU, "its age, and enrollment expectations."
That view has supporters on campus.
"What's going to be the best investment for the future?" said economics professor Robert Eyler, who argues that the debt-financed projects advance SSU's mission and ultimately will benefit the larger community.
"These build capital to generate more space for students and thus more graduates, and it builds human capital."
But others are increasingly worried the debt has grown too high and is costing too much every year.