UC faculty are being informed of an 8% pay reduction, and the only question we’re being asked as if we want it as a “pay cut” or as a “furlough” (up to 21 days forced, unpaid leave).  I prefer the furlough option.  I think this is actually critical for the university’s negotiating position with the state going forward.  A furlough at least in theory preserves the principle of “reduced budget = reduced services”.  By contrast, just announcing a pay cut (i.e. unilaterally changing our employment contract without faculty or staff having any way to disagree short of simply leaving) gives the legislature the impression that they can get something for nothing: just cut the UC budget, and then sit back and enjoy the spectacle of UCOP cutting staff salaries in order to maintain services.  What this communicates to the legislature is that the salaries were excessive in the first place, since they could be cut without any visible impact on services. (Of course, in the long-term the impact on quality will be devastating, but the legislature isn’t thinking about that right now).  Every other cost-cutting option (reducing prison expenditures; reducing health or welfare expenditures) translates directly into reduced services and corresponding backlash from constituents (some of whom, like the prison guards union, are very powerful).  So legislators will be sorely tempted to re-try that amazing “cut UC” magic, to find out just how deep they can go before hitting a political wall (i.e. voters getting angry enough to vote them out).

Of course, most of us would spend our furlough days working madly just like we currently spend our nights and weekends…

I actually think this is a deep issue for UC: re-establishing a transparent linkage between the UC budget and its resulting services, so even the least thoughtful politicians can see that reducing the budget means proportionally fewer students admitted, and that they will be blamed for this by voters.  I feel that UC has for years been playing a loser’s strategy:

  • each time the state cuts the UC budget, UC bends over backwards to maintain services (i.e. don’t reduce enrollments proportionally), by simply passing on the injury, to the detriment of UC’s mission (i.e. raise student fees; reduce faculty quality by falling further behind competing institutions’ salaries, etc.).
  • in so doing, I think UC has fundamentally misconstrued who it must woo as its political constituency.  Specifically, this policy identifies the legislature / governor as our political constituency: by lobbying them and promising them favors (i.e. “we won’t cut enrollments!”), UC hopes to minimize the damage.  However, in the current crisis, this is completely inadequate.  To fight a budget battle and win, you need voter support.  The politicians have to fear that they will lose their next election, because they took away educational opportunities that voters cherish as a vital part of being a California citizen.  UC must make its constituency the voters of this state.
  • under UC’s current policy, it achieved the exact opposite.  By decoupling budget cuts from service cuts, it let the legislature off the hook with the voters.  By raising student fees again and again, UC shifted the responsibility for the reduction in Californians’ educational opportunities to itself.  In effect, it did the politicians’ dirty work for them, and injured its reputation with Californians, who should have been its true constituency.  That is the worst of both worlds.  It is extremely ironic to me to hear that one of the main arguments for the legislature’s plan to strip UC of its independence and take control of it, is that “UC arrogantly raised student fees again and again”.  While that may sound like double-think to us, it probably resonates with a lot of voters, because of UC’s own actions.  UC trained the legislature to see no coupling between UC budget cuts and political consequences for themselves; if anything, they think that attacking the university will gain them favorable publicity.
  • lacking a real long-term strategy, UC has suffered “death by a thousand cuts”.  That is, it voluntarily acceded to a long sequence of smaller cuts, without ever making a stand on the real issue — namely that these cuts added up to a gigantic change in public policy.  When I grew up (1980s), being a Californian meant not only that you could go to the best university system in the world, but you could even pay your own way (you had to work your butt off in both summer jobs and school-year jobs, but it was possible).  UC meant public education that was both affordable and of the highest quality.  The change in %funding per student from the state over this period is simply astounding.  If Californians had ever been asked to vote on giving that up, I doubt we’d be where we are today.

Of course, that battle was lost a long time ago.  So is there anything left worth fighting for?  I think UC is going to be fighting for its life over the next 10 years.  The economy is going to get worse, not better, until someone figures out a new economic foundation for this country (now that manufacturing and services have been out-sourced, and ever-increasing debt no longer looks like financial genius).  What kind of UC will emerge from the wreckage?  Given the legislature’s trajectory of cuts-upon-cuts-upon-cuts…, we are at risk of being relegated to a kind of second-class citizenship we’ve never experienced before, relative to wealthier universities we now regard as our competitors.

If we don’t want that to happen, we have to draw a line and fight for it.  Everyone else is doing that; UC is just doing it ineffectively.  For example, in the budget negotiations leading to Prop. 1A, the oil industry lobbied hard to get rid of a proposed 9.9% oil severance tax; “we won’t need this now that we’re putting Prop. 1A on the ballot”.  California is the only oil-producing state without an oil severance tax.  As a minor example, Wyoming apparently earns $600 million – $1 billion revenue / year from its oil severance tax.  California produces 4 times as much oil as Wyoming.  Do the math.  The state of Alaska earned about $3 billion from oil taxes in 2005 (California produces about 80% as much oil as Alaska).  For details see this post from Sheila Kuhl (see “What Else Dropped Out of the Budget When They Agreed on Prop 1A” and “Comments” at the bottom):

I checked this information and it seems to gibe with past years’ data e.g.:

It really is us-vs-them: you can either give the oil industry a $4 billion gift, or you can save UC.  (You know which one our legislators chose).  If unpopular groups like the oil industry and prison guards union can make politics work for them so successfully in this state, I see no reason why a widely valued institution like UC cannot secure itself as a vital part of what Californians cherish, and of the future welfare of this state.

Why We Should Care
When you were hired, you joined the University of California.  But it would be easy to convert it into Cal State LA: just get rid of all non-tenure track teaching staff (“we have to reduce our budget again, and we’ve already cut everything else!”) and TAships (“well, I’m afraid they cut our number of TA slots again this year.”)  Do this without reducing enrollments, and you can increase the effective teaching load by a factor of two or more.   Who can do leading-edge research under those conditions?  Then everyone who can leave for greener pastures, does…