Some faculty members in the University of California system plan to stage a walkout starting on Sept. 24—which also happens to be the first day of classes at several of the system’s 10 campuses. The aim of the walkouts is to protest an $813 million cut in state funding for the university system during the 2009-2010 academic year occasioned by California’s efforts to close a $26 billion budget shortfall that nearly brought state operations to a halt earlier this summer.
UC professors—and not just the several hundred who have indicated that they plan to start canceling classes that day—are angry that the university system’s Board of Regents decided to implement the cuts by mandating across-the-board furloughs (essentially salary cuts in return for less work) for all UC faculty and staffer, and that the system’s Office of the President subsequently ruled that professors could not take their furloughs on teaching days.
The idea behind the canceled classes is to make UC students feel so much pain that either they or their parents will goad state legislators into restoring the cut funds. “Instructional furloughs pressure the state to cease defunding the UC system,” said a letter signed by 16 professors from various campuses. One of the signatories, Nathan Brown, an English professor at UC-Davis, put it this way in an interview with the Sacramento Bee: “We’re not walking out on students. We are refusing to implement the university’s destruction of the education system.”
Although the American Association of University Professors has announced its support for the walkout (and the University Professional and Technical Employees union, which represents more than 10,000 UC employees plans a sympathy strike), the UC system’s academic senate has not approved the walkout, and its organizers do not officially represent the faculty. Many professors, although they resent the fact that the ban on using teaching days for furloughs means their workloads won’t be substantially reduced, have refused to join the walkout on grounds that it would be unfair to their students, who are already feeling the pinch of the budget cuts. In-state tuition (called “basic fees”) for undergraduates who are California residents has been hiked to the point that it will be nearly doubled by the fall of 2010, and they also face larger classes, smaller numbers of teaching assistants because of layoffs, and reduced library hours and other academic services. UC-San Diego economics professor James Hamilton called the furloughs “a complete joke” (at the same time that they announced the pay cuts and layoffs, the regents approved pay raises for two dozen top executives), but he also lashed out at the idea of canceling classes.
“There are any number of things that happen in life that may not be as I would have wished,” Hamilton wrote on the blog Econobrowser. “But one of my core principles is never to take that out on the students I am asked to teach. If some of my colleagues perceive that they now have better opportunities than teaching at the University of California, I’d encourage them to resign so that they can take advantage of those opportunities. If not, they need to stop whining and do their jobs. And perhaps be thankful that, unlike many other Americans, they still have one.”
The faculty furloughs also raise the question of whether across-the-board salary reductions are the wisest budget-cutting strategy for a top-rated research university system such as UC’s—or for any college for that matter. It would seem to make more sense for UC to follow the lead of other universities in selectively targeting specific academic programs that are duplicative, poorly subscribed, or, in the case of professional schools, unable to pay for themselves. Student services that make campus administrators feel virtuous but don’t contribute directly to learning—“diversity” and “green” offices come to mind—could also be trimmed drastically or eliminated during this time of belt-tightening.
UC-Berkeley, for example, spends $100,000 a year to fund a Multicultural Center set up in 1999 to placate radical students after a round of demonstrations and hunger strikes, and the university promised last year to spend another $200,000 to renovate the center after the campus Third World Liberation Front staged a second round of noisy protests accusing UC-Berkeley of racism. That money is sacrosanct—lthough Dan Mogulof, UC-Berkeley’s executive director of public affairs, pointed out in an e-mail to me that the office of the university’s Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion, which oversees the center, suffered an overall budget cut this coming year of 19.7 percent, “or about five times as much as most academic units” on campus.
Some UC faculty members have gone even further and proposed a drastic restructuring of the entire UC system. Unlike most state university systems, which focus resources on shoring up a single prestigious flagship research campus (as in the case in Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin), UC maintains, or tries to maintain, 10 flagship campuses, including the brand-new UC-Merced, which opened in 2005. A June 15 statement signed by 24 department heads and program chairs at UC-San Diego, harshly criticized this tactic, pointing out that only four UC campuses out of the 10—San Diego, Berkeley, UCLA, and UC-San Francisco, which houses a prestigious public medical school—deserved flagship research status. Treating all the campuses equally across the board—which right now means cutting salaries and research support across the board, shrinking full-time faculty, and filling teaching slots with part-timers who conduct no research—would ultimately reduce all 10 campuses to equal mediocrity, the letter maintained. “The cuts to our operating budget have essentially been spread equally across campuses and units, without much pretense at selectivity, depriving the excellent along with the less so, damaging morale and the very fabric of an institution that makes extraordinary contributions to our state and nation.”
UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge recently suggested yet another targeted cut: getting rid of the brand-new law school at UC-Irvine. Long before Irvine’s law school opened its doors a few weeks ago, the California Postsecondary Education Commission concluded that the school was unnecessary because California already has plenty of lawyers (about 200,000) and also plenty of public and private law schools, including four on other UC campuses alone. “I see no reason for the state to spend a dime on Irvine,” Bainbridge wrote on his blog. “Kill it now and put the money to better use, such as helping reverse some of the cuts to undergraduate education.”
But selective cutting is clearly not the direction the UC system is taking. It seems more likely that across-the-board salary cuts and walkouts and other forms of diffuse faculty resentment will mark the systems future, along with a slow slide to mediocrity.