Man in the Middle

San Jose State’s President Mohammad Qayoumi finds himself in a tough spot as he deals with students, faculty mad about cuts.

Originally published by Nov. 30, 2011

By Josh Koehn

As the sun sets outside the gothic Tower Hall on San Jose State University’s campus, Mohammad Qayoumi sits at a board table in his office, looking every bit the politician with his crisp shirt and tie, gray hair parted neatly to the right.

He doesn’t spend much time talking about himself, even when the questions pertain to the uncomfortable political role Qayoumi is currently being forced to play. The president of SJSU—who was born in Afghanistan and previously presided over Cal-State East Bay—is being pulled in two different directions.

On one side, tugging for his advocacy, are students and faculty staging protests: the former incensed about increased tuition fees, the latter coordinating strikes over compensation complaints. And on the other side are Qayoumi’s superiors: Chancellor Charles Reed and the board of trustees.

Qayoumi’s job is to mediate between the various interests and lead the university at the same time, pretty much an impossible assignment. So, when he is asked about the difficulty of being stuck in the middle, it’s not surprising that his answer is political.

“I think the unfortunate thing is we have a bigger societal issue,” Qayoumi says. “There is such a hyper-level of partisanship that has really impeded any level of compromise for both sides of the political spectrum working together. One side of our political arena has been shackled with no-tax pledges, and then on the other side people are trying to protect a lot of social programs. When our revenue streams and our expense streams do not match, that has created the quagmire that a lot of us in California are facing.”

When Gov. Jerry Brown reviewed his state budget plan at the beginning of this year, many knew public education would be one of the first things on the chopping block. The Cal-State system alone took $650 million in cuts, forcing students to see tuition increases for the sixth straight year. That is almost guaranteed to grow to seven, as an additional $100 million in cuts are expected due to revenue shortfalls based on unmet projections.

“There has always been an easy way out for a lot of our public officials,” Qayoumi says. “They can cut us since there is a vehicle of being able to increase fees.”

Students protested the CSU board of trustees’ meeting on Nov. 16, when a 9 percent increase in tuition fees was approved. Several students were arrested for trying to storm the meeting, which was eventually held behind closed doors. Objections were raised by students, faculty, the media and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took part in the 9-6 vote to increase fees. Reed, however, said there was no good reason to revisit the vote.

As a result, students at SJSU walked out in protest the same day, with more than a couple hundred people carrying signs, banging drums and chanting before stopping at the iconic Tommie Smith and John Carlos statue on campus.

Qayoumi had no power to influence the board of trustees’ vote nor the subsequent protests, but students and faculty are keeping a close eye on how he responds. With no immediate solutions at hand to curb costs substantially or to create additional revenue outside of tuition increases, matters can only get worse.

“What remains to be seen is what kind of president he is and what policies he favors and enacts,” says Johnathan Karpf, an anthropology lecturer at SJSU. “He’s been open to hearing the frustrations that faculty, students and staff have. But all the university presidents serve at the pleasure of the chancellor, so as a consequence of that very few are willing to say anything that contravenes with what the chancellor is saying. My feeling is [Qayoumi] will be touting whatever line the chancellor wants him to tout. And that’s the nature of the beast.”

Double Vision

When Karpf lists off the achievements and eventual decline of societies such as the Aztecs, Mayans or Incas, he sees twice as many students as the two dozen or so he had sitting in his classrooms a generation ago.

“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, my average class size was 25 students,” Karpf says. “In those same classes, my class size has gone up to 50 to 60.”

In Karpf’s opinion, he isn’t just teaching about technically advanced societies that once flourished through education only to become decimated—he’s living in one. Budget cuts have made increased class sizes and stretched-thin teachers an all-too common tale in California’s educational system. As a result, lecturers such as Karpf, who hold no tenure and can easily lose their jobs, are voicing dissent at their own peril.

“When you’re talking about state funding cuts, that is real,” says Karpf, who sits on the California Faculty Association’s board of directors. “That argument is legitimate. No faculty member, certainly not me, will dispute that.”

But Karpf and others will debate where the board of trustees directs its dollars.

“The thing is people say the budget is bad and California doesn’t have the money, but they do have the money,” says Gloria Collins, a 31-year English lecturer at SJSU and secretary on the CFA board. “It gets misappropriated, in my opinion.” That theory will be tested, in part, when auxiliary organizations and foundations for California’s community colleges, the University of California system and CSU schools open their books for public inspection for the first time on Jan. 1.

Sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Senate Bill 8 clears those organizations and foundations’ records for public records requests while protecting the names of donors. It’s from these university foundations and auxiliaries where not all but a portion of salaries of presidents and administrators are paid. How much is not always known but is a topic of hot debate amongst faculty.

“The short answer is we don’t really know how much money is there, but we’re looking forward to the opportunity of finding out,” Karpf says. “I can’t cite empirical basis for this, but I have the feeling the foundations—because they have not been transparent—allow the chancellor to move funds from the general fund into the foundations.”

Much was made of the CSU trustees’ decision in July to raise the salary of new San Diego State President Elliot Hirshman to $400,000, which was an increase of more than $100,000 over that of his predecessor, Stephen Weber. But Weber went a substantial time without a raise, Qayoumi says, adding that the CFA’s use of limited information regarding negotiations as well as Hirschman’s salary during their protests was misleading.

“When you’re trying to make the best case of your own situation, you want to use data very judiciously and also promote your case, while not really giving all of the context of it,” he says.

While that could be seen as a company line, Qayoumi agrees with the legislation to open the foundations and auxiliary organizations’ books: “I always believe what they say: ‘Light is the best disinfectant.’ For accountability, transparency is the first step.”

Nailing down exactly where Qayoumi stands in the continuing fight between faculty and students against the chancellor and his board will also soon be revealed. But for now, it seems he is content to side with the latter.

“I think they are trying to do the right thing,” Qayoumi says, “but I think part of it is that many of the specialized interests are not interested in hearing it.”

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