Existential threat: Sonoma State’s budget crunch poses a bigger problem than the scandal surrounding its president
Karen Moranski was in damage control mode.
The Sonoma State University provost had ventured into the school’s Warren Auditorium Wednesday afternoon to placate a score or so of faculty members.
They were there not to discuss the school’s embattled president, Judy Sakaki, and the allegations of sexual harassment against her estranged husband, but rather a confidential report leaked several weeks earlier.
It detailed how the university intended to address part of the $15 million to $17 million deficit now confronting it — by carving $5.5 million from the budget of the Academic Affairs division. Among the more eyebrow-raising recommendations in the document: cutting the nursing program, and merging two schools — Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences.
Moranski assured the Ph.D.s arrayed before her that those proposals were merely concepts. The report, first revealed in the student-run Sonoma State Star newspaper, was just a work in progress, she said. No decisions had been made.
Even so, several professors spoke of how the administration had betrayed their trust.
Scarcely mentioned during the hourlong meeting was the scandal enveloping the highest reaches of the administration. That was refreshing, in a way — but also a reminder that this university was in crisis long before the allegations of retaliation made against Sakaki over her husband’s case came to light.
Sonoma State’s deep-seated, structural financial problems pose a far greater threat to its future than the current cloud over its president, say administrators and faculty members on the Rohnert Park campus.
“What’s at stake here is not merely the leadership of President Sakaki, but the future of the institution,” said David McCuan, chair of the Political Science department and a staunch critic of Sakaki.
“Will SSU be a gem for the California State University system?” he said. “Or, will it continue to be potential that remains unfulfilled?”
Attempts to interview Sakaki for this story were met with a reply from a spokesperson who noted that Sakaki acknowledged the university’s budget difficulties in a statement a week earlier.
She said no final decisions have been made, but that the fiscal process needs to be improved “to better fit the changing size and demands of our campus.”
Why so low?
The 29-page report that raised hackles among the faculty in Warren Auditorium on that Wednesday afternoon was the product of a working group convened in December by Moranski.
The group is called the Academic Affairs Budget Advisory Working Group, or AABAWG — an acronym one professor dubbed “Balrog” — after the demonic monster slain by Gandalf in “The Lord of The Rings.”
Comprised of faculty, staff and administration, members met over the spring semester.
On page 28 of their report, a forlorn question is posed (but not answered): “Why is our yield rate so low?”
A college’s “yield rate” is the percentage of students who — having been accepted — actually enroll.
Of the 13,353 students who applied for undergraduate admission to Sonoma State for the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 89% were accepted. Only 7.7% of those accepted ultimately chose to enroll at the Rohnert Park campus, a yield rate McCuan described as “dismal.”
The numbers haven’t always been so grim, according to collegetuitioncompare.com. The university’s yield rate was 17.54% a decade ago, and has sunk steadily since then.
It was 14.36% in 2016-17, the year Sakaki succeeded then-university president Ruben Armiñana, then dipped to 11.27% in 2019-20. That was a reflection, in part, of the wildfires and smoke that had plagued the North Bay for three consecutive years.
Those shrinking yield rates — last year’s woeful 7.67% marked the most dramatic one-year plunge in at least a decade — have resulted in dwindling enrollment numbers.
The pandemic has certainly played a role. According to an EdSource story last November, 17 of 23 CSU campuses lost enrollment during the pandemic.
Across the CSU system, fall 2021 enrollment is down 1.7%; nationally, public four-year universities experienced a decline of 2.5% last year.
But the declines at CSU campuses in Northern California have been more extreme, particularly in recent years.
Since Sakaki took the helm at Sonoma State in 2016, fall enrollment has declined by 23%, from 9,323 to 7,182, according to university data. Moranski and other faculty point to recent wildfires as one of the main reasons.