15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut
#6 "California Dreaming"

Friday, February 12, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The next in our series on the condition of higher education comes from outside the University of Illinois. Joseph Childers, a scholar of Victorian literature, is professor of English and Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California Riverside]

Written by Joseph Childers (English/Dean of the Graduate Division, University of California Riverside)

Give California credit; it has a habit of being out in front of the crowd. For example, in 1978 it passed Proposition 13, the third rail of California politics, which capped property taxes in the state and mandated that attempts to raise any state monies through taxation (including income taxes) require a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses. Not content with destabilizing the revenues for a wide variety of social services, the people of California decided that it was unconscionable to allow any race or gender based preference in connection with the expenditure of state funds (including scholarships and fellowships at colleges and universities). As a result, in 1996 Ward Connerly’s hideous progeny, Proposition 209, emerged fully grown from the mind of its father, effectively gutting affirmative action in the state.

With such a track record, it should come as no surprise that California also led the way in this new, fun trend of furloughs. Facing enormous—and growing—deficits, Governor Schwarzenegger implemented them for state employees in early 2009. Though my institution, the University of California, is state funded, we are not state employees per se. Thus we escaped the furlough wave until October of 2009, when the UC Office of the President (UCOP) rolled out a complex, tiered plan for reducing the number of hours (and pay) for the faculty and staff on each of its ten campuses. In all fairness, the University had few choices. The state had failed to live up to its “compact” with the University, in essence shorting the institution approximately $900 million dollars. In the UC system, just as with windfalls, deficits are shared. On my own campus, we went from $12 million to $51 million in red ink over the course of the summer.

Despite my snide remarks about the furlough trend, I have to admit that from my perspective as an administrator, there is a great deal about the furlough program that makes sense. On my campus it allows us to recapture some of the cash that we simply do not have. Also, it means we don’t have to lay off large numbers of staff, adjuncts, and, potentially, non-tenured faculty. And while almost everyone is getting less money in his or her paycheck, because this is not a pay cut, it does not affect retirement contributions by the system, which, in California, are based on one’s published salary. Salaries remain intact (even though hours worked and take-home pay is reduced) for most of the 170,000 faculty and staff system wide and retirement benefits are secure.

In terms of paying the bills, the furlough program seems like one of the most benign of a very unsavory set of options. Pragmatically, however, it has not exactly been Solomon’s solution. Though staff and faculty are logging fewer hours, the amount of work that needs to be done has not decreased. So we must work harder to get it done in a shorter amount of time. Or, as is often the case, some things just don’t get done, which undermines the quality of the educational experience we provide. Also, unlike in the Cal State system, which is also using furloughs, University of California faculty may not take furlough time on teaching days. Instruction is job one. Broadly speaking, the distinction between the Cal States and the UCs in the educational “master plan” of California is that the UCs are the research institutions; they are the campuses that can award doctorates and where advancement through the faculty ranks is founded on the quality of one’s research. But if a faculty member is required to meet his or her instructional obligations, when does one take “furlough time” except by reducing the amount of time spent on research? Cutting out service, or even office hours, just isn’t enough. As a result, faculty, at least, don’t really take furloughs, and everyone realizes that though our retirements might be protected, what we have is a paycut: the same work for less pay.

For me, the implications of this are far-reaching. First, in a state that already undervalues education and believes that professors are grossly overpaid, furloughs as they are functioning in the UCs bolster the belief that the state has been spending too much on its universities. If students are getting taught and research is being completed for less, why in the world should the state invest more money in education?

Second, we should remember that faculty as well as a great number of vital university staff are task-driven. For these employees the issue is not about putting in a good day’s work—even a shortened day or a day less during the week. The issue is getting through the pile of work on one’s literal or virtual desktop. Regardless of whether that task is completed today or next week, it must be finished if a student is going to get his fellowship disbursement, or a class is going to be taught, or a paper is going to be graded. Nor can these tasks be ignored. As a result, disbursements get made; classes get taught; papers get graded. After all, it is not the students who created this economic mess, and most feel that it is not exactly politic, let alone ethical, to ask them for more money for fees and then deliver less attention and fewer services.

Yet in being “good citizens” of the university and continuing to meet our obligations, UC faculty are devaluing our own labor and participating in the ease by which that labor is exploited. This is not the space to begin a discussion of cognitive capitalism and the status of “immaterial” versus moveable and non-moveable products or commodities. Suffice it to say that the surplus value of what we are providing—education—is increasing. This increase is not because the intrinsic value of that education has risen (though it might have), but because in being compensated less for our labor, the gap between that compensation and the value of our product has grown.

Finally, although I don’t want to be cast as a Romantic or become overly attached to a labor theory of value, from what I’ve observed, most university faculty do not view their work as “just a job.” In fact, it is in part because faculty have such a full and complex connection to their vocation that so many are willing to continue to do it with the same commitment and less pay during these difficult economic times. Nonetheless, furloughs continually remind us that we do indeed exchange our work for wages. And when our remuneration declines, we run the risk of becoming increasingly estranged from our labor, a condition that poses dire consequences for the quality of both teaching and research.

The consensus among faculty and administrators in the University of California system is that when we make it through this recession, our way of doing business will be changed forever. What we may well find is that, like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, we will rely on higher fees for our in-state students and, increasingly, on out of state students and their non-resident tuition to pay our bills. This means that we will no longer be able to guarantee admission to the top 12.5% of California high school graduates. Campuses like mine and UC Santa Barbara, which pride themselves on being the school of choice for so many low-income and first-generation students, will have to limit accessibility. Not only will fewer California students be allowed in, the increased costs will make it prohibitive for a great number to attend.

In light of the failure—or the inability—of our state governments to fund adequately that which is most necessary for a progressive society, it seems to me that the furlough issue in Illinois and in California might have been handled a great deal more effectively. A political moment, at least in my state, has come and gone when we might have highlighted the consequences of inadequately funding higher education and yet still have met the needs of our students. True, some efforts were made along these lines, but I don’t believe that we can rely on teach-ins and demonstrations, the tactics of a different generation, to have the same effects as they did forty years ago.

The President of the University of California has made it known that we can not continue to do the job of the University with a work force that must take 10 to 20 days of unpaid leave each year. Next year everyone expects the furlough program will be mothballed. Until then we are just postponing the inevitable: lay-offs, consolidating programs, closing others. We already see this happening in the U.K.

And while the Chronicle of Higher Education may be able to find uplifting human interest stories about the important humanitarian work some are able to do during their furloughs , the fact remains that in not investing in the frontlines of the delivery of higher education—the faculty and staff who make it happen—we are creating a much greater deficit that could very well devastate higher public education, bankrupting not only our institutions but our morale as well.


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Anonymous said...

Interesting to compare. So as we know and read here California is strangled by Prop 13. But in Illinois it's just possible there will be a tax increase to get us out of our budget mess. So why isn't UI's admin and Fac Senate working to save the U from severe budget cuts and tuition increases instead of getting ahead of the wave? Where is the leadership coming from here?

Bruce Rosenstock said...

Great piece. Furloughs should be a last resort because of all the reasons articulated here: devaluation of the work of the faculty; appearance that the work can be done for less pay. Furloughs, I may add, demoralize public university faculty precisely by turning their labor during the week of the furlough into wage labor, and any work over 32 hours into unpaid overtime that they must do in secret in order to comply with federal law. President Ikenberry resorted to furloughs in order to recover a fraction of a short-term cash flow deficit. In the context of what brought our peer institutions to adopt this measure, President Ikenberry's decision was both unprecedented and imprudent. His decision to offer "voluntary" pay cuts instead is a symptom of backpedaling. If the financial future of Illinois is as dire as our administration (and some members of our Senate) make it out to be, then the furloughs must be much longer and more long-term (as at Arizona State where they recover nearly half of the state's lower allocation in 12 days of furlough amounting to between 8 and 12 per cent salary reduction over the year). Such a furlough policy here, should it become necessary, must be taken only after the budget crisis has been clearly laid before the faculty and we have all accepted this as the only way to procede. Our furlough takes the direst of actions and uses it to no real effect. Unprecedented and imprudent.