Is Cal Poly ignoring endowments?
February 27, 2010
At a time when the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo is mired in as much as a $1-million operating budget deficit, the popular college, which attracts more than its share of generous donations, is under fire for the way it handles some of that money.
Donations in the millions are very important to Cal Poly administrators because these hefty gifts can help cover dwindling state support for higher education in the midst of the declining economy.
CalCoastNews has learned that criticism over the use of gift money in Cal Poly’s College of Engineering has come to light over a $3.5 million donation given to the college by successful entrepreneur, Ross Brown.
Some engineering professors and staffers say there were no problems in allocating most of Brown’s gift, $2 million given in 2005, for the construction of a building named after Brown’s brother, Grant Brown.
Ross Brown said the remaining $1.5 million was to endow a professorship in engineering. But for unexplained reasons the money has not been used for that purpose.
“They said they were in the process of finding a professor two or three years ago,” Brown said. “I have no idea what they are using the money for.”
Some critics, including some professors who decline to be publicly identified for fear of retribution, say the money intended for the professorship was spent for other things by engineering college Dean Mohammed Noori, who has drawn criticism in the past for, among other things, an ill-fated teaching agreement with a university in Saudi Arabia.
Brown doesn’t seem to be a donor Cal Poly officials can afford to ignore. Two years ago, he submitted a proposal that would establish an internship as well as a scholarship for engineering students.
But campus officials haven’t acted on that proposal.
“We submitted the proposal for the scholarships and it never came back to us,” Brown said. “It seems like it is lost.”
Monies donated to fund professorships are placed in 4.25 percent interest bearing accounts. The principal is contracted to stay intact while the interest is supposed to be used to help fund a professorial position.
Ross Brown’s donation in 2005 was to honor his mentor, James Bartlett, a well-known businessman who gave Brown his first job. Ross Brown asked the college to award The Bartlett Professorship in a timely manner so that Bartlett, who lives in Santa Barbara and is now in his 90s, would be alive to meet the recipient.
At this time, an engineering professor has yet to be chosen for the Bartlett honor and university employees are in disagreement as to why.
By law, university auxiliaries, such as the fundraising of the Cal Poly Corporation, are confidential. Neither the donors, faculty nor the public can find out how the donations are being used.
Cal Poly’s public relations personnel contend that Brown’s endowment has not been touched. They blame high turnover in the college for its failure to follow through on the gift agreement.
“The endowment is intact and no funds have been spent,” said Cal Poly spokesperson Stacia Momburg. “There has been transition in the engineering college.”
During the controversial four-year reign of college dean Noori, declining morale and a high level of staffing changes have plagued the college. During the past four years, staff turnovers have exceeded 50 percent. In addition, six chairs have stepped down and numerous faculty and staff have voiced dissatisfaction within the college.
Though Momburg admits the college has failed to properly stay in contact with Brown, she contends they have sent him an annual accounting about the status of his endowment.
However, Brown told CalCoastNews he has not been provided annual accountings of the professorship endowment.
“I have no idea what they have used the monies for,” Brown said. “Bartlett is 91-years-old.”
Some engineering college employees have told CalCoastNews that the department was in the process of drafting a letter to request that Brown allow the college to redirect his donation. This has caused them to question if Noori has already started spending the monies to alleviate some of the college’s money woes.
Running on an annual budget of approximately $25 million (including student fees), the college fell short $540,000 for the first time in its history in 2007. Former and current associates blame Noori, who is the highest paid dean, adding salary and perks, in the California State University system.
Prior to being hired at Cal Poly, Noori served as the mechanical and aeronautical engineering department head at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Noori had been forced to step down from his position as department head due to reported widespread dissatisfaction with his performance.
“There were allegations of plagiarism, inappropriate e-mails from Noori, poor judgment in financial matters, and a very poor record with staff,” said Larry Silverberg, professor and associate head of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NCSU. “More than half the staff left while Noori was here.”
Cal Poly’s engineering college continues to operate in the red. At this time, staff is still waiting for Noori to provide a budget for an academic year that started more than six months ago.
Meanwhile, transparency in how universities spend their monies has become a topic of concern for parents, students, administrators and some politicians throughout California.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) is attempting to bring a more financial accountability and openness to California’s public universities with Senate Bill 330 and Senate Bill 650. Senate Bill 330 would make the accounting records of California public universities available to anyone through the California Publics Records Act. Senate Bill 650 is written to provide legal protection to university employees who report fraud, waste and abuse.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger would need to approve both the bills before they become law. The bills are expected to be on the governor’s desk in the spring.