Defining Moment

Solidarity is about to go up on trial.

In the coming days, a disparate group of California State University faculty will take a vote that could come to define the union representing them. It could also alter the future of the 23-campus California State system, which is facing a budget crisis unlike any other in recent memory.

The California Faculty Association, which represents 23,000 faculty members, from part-time lecturers to tenured professors, will finish voting Monday on whether to take as many as 24 unpaid furlough days to help fill the university’s $584 million or 20 percent state budget gap. A “no” vote is sure to spell significant layoffs, but faculty complain there’s no guarantee the furloughs will preserve all jobs, either.

The vote presents a particular quandary for full professors, who must decide whether to reduce their own compensation by about 10 percent, largely in the interest of saving other people’s jobs. While not immune from layoffs themselves, tenure and tenure-track faculty are considerably less vulnerable than the lecturers who comprise about half the faculty in the union. On the other hand, professors’ lives and workloads may change considerably if lecturers are laid off en masse. The use of lecturers, while often criticized in higher education, helps reduce class sizes, increases section offerings and – in some cases – reduces the number of general education courses full professors have to teach.

“It makes any decision you have to make agonizing. Everybody is being harmed,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the union and a professor at the Los Angeles campus.

The union, which is affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors, has taken no official position on how members should vote. Asked which way the wind might be blowing, Taiz said she couldn’t speculate.

While the furloughs would not differ based on salary levels, as the University of California has done, full-time employees working 10 months would take 20 days, compared with 24 days for those on 12-month appointments.

The union’s vote has become a flashpoint in a larger discussion about how best to maintain quality, accessibility and jobs at California State, an institution that serves 450,000 students. Charles B. Reed, the system’s chancellor, says the furloughs will save 6,000 jobs and 22,000 classes. He has not been able or willing, however, to provide union leaders what they want: A guarantee that furloughs will totally prevent layoffs. That’s in part because Reed plans to reduce systemwide enrollment by 32,000 students over the course of the next year, a cost-reduction plan that is tied to having fewer faculty and staff on the payroll.

“They want some assurance that going forward that there won’t be any layoffs. I can’t give that assurance,” Reed said in a Tuesday interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“We will need fewer faculty and staff in 2010-11, so what a furlough does is a one-time only savings,” he added. “It’s not a permanent continuation savings, and we’re going to have to get to where we are downsizing enough to permanently [address] huge cuts that we’re experiencing.”

While the furloughs are a source of immediate debate and concern, the permanent solutions to which Reed alludes are causing equal heartburn across the system. The furloughs are only expected to generate $275 million, less than half of what’s needed just to cover the current deficit. Reductions of enrollment and class offerings, increased student fees and expanded class sizes are all expected as well.

Audrey Silvestre, a senior at the Long Beach campus, says she’s already seen directed independent study offerings in her women’s studies major scaled back.

“That’s really a shame because a lot of students gain experience through these directed study courses, and they’re not being offered,” she said. “I feel like we’re losing out in terms of being prepared for graduate school or the workplace in terms of gaining work experience.”

The university’s Fresno campus announced a dramatic 20 percent reduction in class offerings for the fall, even though the campus expects about 1,300 more students to attend that semester than did a year ago.

These cuts in class sections come on top of what some students describe as already-sparse academic offerings on many campuses. Ruben Vazquez, who is entering his second year at the California Polytechnic Pomona campus, describes something of a semesterly tradition, where students literally run from one class to another, fighting their way into any available seat.

“With the budget cuts and all that, they’ve been decreasing class sections since I entered school,” says Vazquez, member of a group called Students for Quality Education.

And students attending California State next year can expect to pay more for less. Reed plans to ask the regents to approve a 20 percent increase in fees – known as tuition in other states. The proposed increase would come on top of a 10 percent hike approved in May, bringing the average annual undergraduate tuition to $4,026 – an increase of $672.

“I think that’s a good bargain, especially if you compare the CSU to all the other public colleges and universities in this country,” Reed said at a press conference Thursday.

Of the tuition revenues generated, one-third would go toward financial aid, Reed said.

Access Denied

California State has long prided itself on giving access to a diverse population of students, many of whom come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. While many of the University of California’s campuses have become ultra-competitive in admissions and place an ever-greater focus on research, California State has accommodated far more undergraduates than the University of California System can handle. California State has also sought to produce the state’s teachers and nurses, fulfilling a vital need across the state. Many wonder, however, how the mission and demographics of California State may be altered by reducing access and increasing price.

“We’re going to have to take all of our efforts to ensure this system doesn’t become something we don’t want it to become,” said Taiz, the union president.

As chancellor, Reed says one of his greatest worries is that this crisis will push out the very students California State has sought to serve. Given recent increases in federal Pell Grants, as well as currently available – albeit threatened – state aid, Reed says students from families making $75,000 or less will not see fee increases. The system has also said it will defer fee payments for students whose Cal Grants — need-based grants provided by the state — are delayed.

Despite efforts to help low-income students, however, Reed acknowledges that preserving the current socioeconomic demographics of the university will take a conscious effort. The university’s admissions process will have to be restructured to reflect a greater emphasis on recruiting low-income students, and in so doing help maintain campus diversity, Reed said.

“Let’s face it, students of color from the underserved communities [also] come from the lower economic income, so we’ve got to pay attention to that in our admissions process,” he said.

There is concern, however, that a significant number of low-income students will be thwarted in their efforts to transfer from nearby community colleges. By closing off spring admission in 2010, as it plans to do, the system will leave some community college students with nowhere to go. Allison Jones, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for student support, said eligible transfer students who aren’t admitted in the spring will move to the front of the line next fall.

“If there is a student who is fully eligible at the point of the spring, we simply don’t have the space for them, and they will have to stay at the community college,” Jones said at a Thursday press conference.

Loucine Huckabay, director of nursing at the Long Beach campus, is already feeling the impact of the university’s admissions slowdown. The program was not able to accept transfer students for the fall, even though transfers typically make up half the class. The university has sought to preserve enrollment in the high-demand nursing programs, however, by letting Huckabay admit more pre-nursing students who are already enrolled.

Even without fee increases, nursing degrees will be more expensive for new graduate students next year. The program accepted 84 master’s degree students on “self support,” meaning they pay for the full cost of their instruction without state subsidies. Even without the expected 20 percent fee increase, those new students will pay $350 per unit, instead of about $180.

The union’s furlough vote looms large for nursing departments because they have less flexibility in altering class sizes than some other disciplines. Accreditation regulations prevent the programs from increasing class sizes above a 12:1 student/faculty ratio in clinical classes. If there are layoffs or furloughs, Huckabay expects to have to double the size of some of her theory classes because she can’t enlarge clinical sections.

Despite the challenges, Huckabay remains optimistic.

“We have wonderful faculty,” she said. “They are concerned, but they also know that I will do my very best to protect instruction, to protect students and to protect their jobs.”

‘Stealing, Borrowing, [and] Cooking the Books’

Facing a $26.3 billion shortfall, the state of California is thought to have few good options. That has not tempered the anger, however, of students and faculty who see cuts to higher education as yet another shortsighted maneuver by a state government that has specialized in shortcuts and band-aid solutions.

Compared to the University of California, which draws about 20 percent of its total budget from the state, California State is much more dependent on Sacramento dollars. Including tuition revenue, California State has a total budget of about $4.52 billion — not including any federal stimulus funds expected this year. About 66 percent of that $4.52 billion budget comes from the state.

While highly state dependent, California State officials argue there is no more important investment for the state at this juncture. The oft-cited evidence for that position is contained in a 2008 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, which says the state will not produce enough people with bachelor’s degrees to fill its workforce by 2025. In part driven by the lower educational attainment of the state’s burgeoning Latino population, California expects just 33 percent of its working adults to hold college degrees by 2020, even though it will need 41 percent to have such degrees by 2025, the report states.

“What we’re really talking about here is not preparing the people we need for the 21st century to do this kind of work,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, the California Faculty Association’s vice president of lecturers. “We have to really think seriously about what we’re doing as far as producing the human capital that’s needed.”

And yet, it seems the die is cast. Reed says there is “almost a zero chance” the cuts won’t be as severe as projected.

“I’m an old guy, OK. I’ve been a chancellor for more than 25 years … I have never seen a mega meltdown in any budget economy like what is going on,” Reed said. “It’s enormous what has happened here in California. And I think part of it is [because] for the last 15-20 years California has lived on the edge by stealing, borrowing, [and] cooking the books. And it all has come together at the same time with the recession, with unemployment, with the anti-tax mood. All that is like a perfect storm, and that’s why I am just amazed. It has come together at one time.” (Inside Higher Ed)

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