California College: Up in Smoke?

07/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Faculty across the California State University system recently received two edicts for closing the massive state budget deficit. The word from Chancellor Charles Reed's office is to either accept furloughs or face layoffs. The first option is bad; the second choice is worse. What's more, these options pit members of the CSU workforce against each other since furloughs impact tenure and tenure-track faculty while layoffs affect part-time workers. The old divide-and-conquer routine.

Here's a quick summary of the situation: Part-time lecturers (a euphemism for highly trained professionals who often teach a full-time load) make up the vast foundation for outsourced labor. The university system relies on adjuncts who are underpaid and, some would argue, overworked.

But the same can be said about tenured and tenure-track faculty. That is, massively underpaid and seriously overworked. Despite a unionized workforce, the CSU faculty bent over last year when negotiated salary increases fell by the wayside. It's likely that the next contractually expected salary increase will be withheld this summer. Without getting bogged down by detail, this compounded salary loss comes to 11.4%.

And while it might seem kind of bratty to complain about salary shortfalls in this time of economic crisis when so many are flat out of jobs and have given up looking, the fact is that our state and national future relies on a well-educated, conscientiously trained populace. Without it, we'll have a few at the top with continued access to the goods and resources of society. The rest will be left scrambling.

The Chancellor's furlough plan amounts to a 10% pay cut for professors, now bringing the compounded effect to a 21.4% decrease in expected salary. What's more, the Chancellor wants faculty to furlough on Fridays. But with so few classes taught on Fridays, this amounts to a pay cut with no real workload reduction, involuntary or otherwise. (Faculty work an estimated 70 to 75 hours each week. In addition to classroom time, there are obligations to research, writing, and committees. Upholding professional expectations will require that faculty continue these activities on Fridays, regardless of what the Chancellor says.)

Adding to the absurdity, furloughs would only decrease the $583 million deficit by about 50%. So what, exactly, happens to the other half of the budget shortfall?

Suggestions by CSU faculty include creative problem solving alternatives like removing office telephones (what's a landline, anyway?), shifting from paper to online correspondence, and turning off lights that are not in use. More draconian options proposed by the administration include rescinding acceptance offers to incoming freshman, tossing out students after one semester on academic probation, cutting class offerings (making graduation more difficult), and packing more students into each classroom (decreasing the quality of the university experience). The approximate 440,000 students of the California State University system should not have to bear the brunt of inadequate decision-making by the state legislature.

But students are also free to vote on these issues, and they haven't. Neither have their parents. Political Science Professor Charles Noble explains, "If students felt that their education were at risk, and if their parents felt the same way, that political force alone would shake up this budget debate. But they don't; so it doesn't."

But someone else is missing, too. Where is big business in this state budget crisis? Will they volunteer to help the cause by forgoing profit or voluntarily raise their taxes? Is leadership offering to stay home one day a week and give up the corresponding salary?

We will see real change when serious demands and proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. The faculty and staff at the 23 CSU campuses across the state are not going to take these absurd suggestions quietly.

Expect to hear from us.

As for non-unionized colleagues at the University of California system, we can only hope that they will speak out loudly to get the point across that the future of higher education in the state of California and the burden of political missteps will not be carried by faculty. "Our students are adults. Many can vote; all pay taxes," Professor Noble comments. "Unless you have a seriously paternalistic view of the world and the faculty's role in it, there is nothing wrong with the expectation that students take some responsibility for what their state government does."

Troy Johnson, Professor of History and American Indian Studies, emphatically adds that nobody wants to see the students, lecturers, or non-tenured faculty members suffer as the result of poor financial management. The time has come to stand united against those in positions of executive and political leadership who care nothing for us, Johnson says.

This is not only a labor issue for CSU faculty. This is an issue about future opportunities and the health of the nation. It's time that students, parents, graduates speak up. It's time that legislators and leadership hear from the people. It's our state, our nation, our voice. Let's use it.