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Sonoma State University has a strong set of core classes and stands out because it is spending less on administration and more on education, but it also comes close to impinging on free speech.

Those are the conclusions of a report about the California State University and University of California systems released today by a Washington D.C., nonprofit group that works on higher education issues.

Faculty leaders who briefly reviewed the report said the criticisms it raised are valid issues, but not new ones. Also, they said, it covered too much ground in pursuit of a particular agenda.

"It's too much of a hodgepodge," said faculty chairwoman Margaret Purser, an anthropology professor. She described it — largely because of its recommendations — as "a political statement in a very political year about a very political issue."

The "Best Laid Plans" report, produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is a 72-page examination of education, intellectual diversity, cost and governance at California's public universities.

"Holding tuition down is neither liberal nor conservative, and maintaining high education standards is neither liberal nor conservative," said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the Washington-based group.

The report generally concludes that one of the nation's key public higher education systems suffers from "waste, bloat and excess," and it is critical of rising tuition costs.

The report calls for increased use of Internet-based classes, year-round classes and fewer building projects. In an interview, Poliakoff cited SSU's new student center, now under construction, as an example of questionable projects for which students shoulder the cost.

"California needs that spirit now of innovation, courage and creativity to break away from old models and serve the most important of their goals, which is to educate students," he said.

"The investment in brick and mortar does not seem to be what should be their priority."

Some faculty members have persistently criticized SSUPresident Ruben Armi?na for his building projects, among them the Green Music Center, funded by private donors and state bonds, and the new student center, to be paid for by student fees.

But Purser, who also has questioned the cost to students of some of those projects, said that Poliakoff's criticism is too simplistic.

"These are projects that are being built to make the campus more attractive to people outside the campus community," she said.

The report singles out SSU on several points.

It commends SSU for required general education classes it offers in areas including government, history, science and writing.

"It speaks very well for Sonoma that it has held fast to a really rigorous, core curriculum," Poliakoff said. "It would be great to see it get even stronger, but it really is one of the better ones we have seen in California."

Also, the report says SSU"particularly stands out" in that spending on administration dropped 16.4 percent from 2005 to 2010, while the share of spending for instructional purposes rose 5.6 percent.

Officials were happy to accept that praise.

"That is why exist, we are here to teach students," said SSU spokeswoman Susan Kashack.

Purser said the praise needed historical contest. "When you are as unbalanced as we were, say five to seven years ago, I'd say the battleship is beginning to turn," she said. "It's the very beginning of that process, but it is beginning, and I'd say that's encouraging."

But both she and Kashack rejected the report's conclusions that conduct codes requiring "students to be civil" to others and prohibiting harassment through "behavioral or verbal remarks" constitute a free speech threat.

Kashack said the administration last year dropped an idea to establish "free speech guidelines" at the urging of faculty who said, "free speech is free."

Purser said the codes do not apply to classroom areas, and thus do not abridge freedom of expression in an academic environment.

"They specifically are there to protect students from threat and assault," she said. "I think that's a good thing."

The report criticizes other campuses more harshly on that point, and Poliakoff said the criticism of SSU is a "warning."

"Sonoma needs to be sure that in encouraging civility, which is a good thing, that it does not do something far more dangerous to the free exchange of ideas. That is what that warning is about," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.