January 20, 2006

As Baby Boomers Turn 60, SDSU Struggles to Define Its Gerontology Program

By Michael Klam

In 1946, 3.4 million Americans were born into a country preparing for nuclear Armageddon.

This new generation of baby boomers would see the assassination of John F. Kennedy as teenagers. Some of them would fight and many would protest during the Vietnam era. In their 20s, some would dance naked in the mud at Woodstock.

The boomers invented youth culture. Untucked and barefoot, they became free-loving dissenters and rock-and-rollers, exercising radical political praxis from the margins of a society bred on propaganda and fear.

They created their own voice, a unified youth front that took on racism, segregation and gender discrimination.

Now, the generation that vowed to stay forever young is turning 60.

While their actual life expectancy is 82.3 years, many boomers expect to live past 100.

With advances in health care and medicine, the boomer sexagenarians have become the most healthy and vital elders in the history of America.

In the 21st century, American seniors are stronger, more educated, more capable and more political than ever.

Today’s boomers will demand services and opportunities to be productive citizens and to continue to lead fulfilling lives.

Recent statistics suggest that by 2025 one out of four San Diegans will be 65 or older. There is an increasing necessity for trained staff and experts to provide new programs and information for the growing population of healthy seniors.

“The demand for services available to help aging adults live independent of institutions such as nursing homes will grow with the aging population of baby boomers. Without these services, taxpayer costs for institutional living will skyrocket,” says professor Mario Garrett, chairman of the Gerontology Department at San Diego State University.

“For the first time in the history of mankind, this will entail new thinking,” he says. “Elders can transfer culture. They can act as ambassadors. These are not needy adults. They are running society by providing support infrastructure through volunteering.”

Garrett earned his Ph.D. from Bath University, England, with an empirical thesis on “Loneliness Among Elderly People.”

His experience ranges from large data management, manipulation and analyses for supporting seniors in China to implementing educational courses in pueblos and reservations in the state of New Mexico.

SDSU’s Gerontology Department, which provides coursework and guidance in the study of aging and its biological, psychological and sociological impacts, was established in 2004.

One of the program’s state-mandated goals is to develop standards and guidelines for students as part of the Strategic Plan for an Aging California Population: Getting California Ready for the “Baby Boomers” published October 14, 2003 by the California Health & Human Services Agency.

In spite of the Gerontology Department’s successes under Garrett’s leadership, which include exceeding enrollment expectations and revitalizing research by securing four new grants amounting to $2.9 million, Marilyn Newhoff, dean of SDSU’s College of Health and Human Services, seeks to “go back to the status that (the gerontology program) has held for 20 to 30 years as an interdisciplinary Center on Aging.”

The Center on Aging and the gerontology program at SDSU have been in existence since 1976.

Professor Garrett believes that Dean Newhoff and Provost Nancy Marlin are attempting to dismantle both the department and the program by cutting funding and putting in place a hiring freeze for tenure track faculty.

“We still have no clue why the university is killing the program. Provost Marlin says that she wants to ‘grow’ the program, but cutting the budget by half is unlikely to make any program grow,” says Garrett.

Newhoff disagrees. “As the dean, part of my job is to find out the best way to use our resources,” she says.

“I believe that making a (gerontology) department was not the wisest decision if we want to be all-inclusive for students and faculty. Interdisciplinary status works best to achieve the broadest range of appeal to teaching and research collaborations,” she continues.

Newhoff cites Business Administration and Latin American Studies as examples of highly successful interdisciplinary programs that do not have a central department.

Provost Marlin said in a previous interview that gerontology is inherently interdisciplinary, and it might make more sense to have people in various departments teach in the program.

“None of the program offerings would change,” says Newhoff. “There is no slashing of the budgets at all.”

Newhoff’s proposed changes for the department have students and professors worried about the fate of gerontology at SDSU, and several dispute her statements.

“Currently, due to budget cuts and shift of tenure-track faculty members to other departments in preparation for the abolishment of our department, I am being affected,” says Lindsey Cornwell, a first-year master’s student.

“In spite of Dean Newhoff’s promise that the proposed changes will not affect current students, I as well as other new master’s students will be forced to compete for faculty members to oversee our thesis procedures. Our department now only has one tenure-track faculty member, and the search for replacement faculty was put to an end by Dean Newhoff,” she says.

Cornwell describes the gerontology department at SDSU as being “very involved.” The students receive e-mails about job postings, internship sites and guest speakers as part of monthly lecture series.

There is a Gerontology Student Association, which prints a monthly newsletter, conducts fundraising events and helps facilitate student involvement in the school and the community.

The department helps to recruit students who are committed and passionate about the aging population rather than students who are just curious about the field and its offerings, according to Cornwell.

“All of these factors aid in strengthening the program and enhancing the education and preparation of its students, myself included. If the department is abolished, these amenities will disappear,” says Cornwell.

Bernadette M. Di Toro, a graduate student of gerontology, came to San Diego from New Orleans specifically because SDSU’s gerontology program is offered through a department.

“I am uncertain of the future for the reputation of this program,” says Di Toro.

“Without a department filled with experts in a specific field, it becomes nearly impossible to get grant money from outside sources for research and student assistantships, which are both necessary to entice students,” she contends.

In December of 2005, professor Dixon Arnett, who calls the Department of Gerontology at SDSU “the flagship of the CSU system,” resigned as a result of the proposed changes and the manner in which they were being carried out.

Dixon was the former director of the California Department of Aging and deputy undersecretary in the Reagan administration for the Department of Health and Human Services.

He echoes the opinion of his colleagues, preferring to keep the program as a separate department to create certainty for staff and students.

He wrote in a letter to Dean Newhoff: “In absolute disgust and deep disappointment over your decision to abolish the Department of Gerontology at SDSU, I hereby submit my resignation as Professor/Lecturer of Gerontology, effective December 31, 2005.”

“You have spouted what I call ‘double-speak’ about your commitment to a ‘gerontology program’ at the same time you have gutted the instructional budget of the Department,” he writes.

“You speak of a ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach, ignoring the prevailing literature that clearly states that a gerontology program without core faculty draws anemic enrollment.”

Arnett has served in public life for over 40 years. He says that he has seen and experienced much in that time, good and bad.

Addressing Newhoff, he contends that he has never experienced “anything close to the callousness and arrogance with which you have autocratically made this decision.”

Newhoff argues that she is “tremendously committed to research dedicated to aging.” She asserts that her only motive for change is to “improve the quality of the gerontology program” at SDSU.

Garrett is asking for a detailed course of action from the University. “University policy and regulations need to be followed, specifically SDSU policies relating to Departments and Schools: Creation, Merger, Transfer and Abolition,” he says.

Newhoff says that she has been trying to collaborate with Garrett since the beginning. She and SDSU President Stephen Weber have both expressed concerns that students have been misinformed.

Garrett disagrees.

In a letter addressed to “Friends of SDSU Gerontology,” the professor writes, “Recently you received a letter from SDSU President Weber in response to your call for support of the gerontology program here. In his letter, he ‘feared’ that you had been ‘misinformed.’ His note runs the risk that you will think you have been caught up in some kind of internal campus tug-of-war that is meaningless. Please be assured that the stakes are much higher.”

Garrett goes on to tell students that two courses have already been canceled by Dean Newhoff.

“The Gerontology program is a local treasure,” says Garrett. “That is why the SDSU administration needs to redress the budget cuts and restore funding appropriate to our growing enrollment. We can then continue to train professionals who provide direct services and coordinate services to our older citizens and expand opportunities for older adults,” he says.

It remains to be seen if both sides can communicate and come to an agreement in 2006 for the sake of the students and the future of San Diego’s seniors.

Dean Newhoff has issued a “Gerontology Conversion Proposal,” with her vision about a multidisciplinary center.

The students have organized as a group called “Fight for Gero.” Perhaps they learned something from the baby boomers, who kept to their credo — defiant, trend setting and assertive.

The boomers struggled for many causes over the years. But most importantly, they united to create change.

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