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'60s Tactics, New Cause

September 24, 2009

Few think the clock will be turned back to the Berkeley of the 1960s, but the protests planned across the University of California today mark a return to the tactics of another era. This time, however, the cause isn’t free speech or an end to war, but instead a response to the university administration’s budget-cutting proposals.

Today will be the first day of classes for 8 of the 10 campuses in the California system, and protest organizers plan to send an early message that the budget cuts besetting the university have been inappropriately addressed by system leaders. The centerpiece of the planned action is a walkout, which has been supported by systemwide student and technical employee organizations, as well as more than

Photo: University of California Walkout Facebook Group

Social media sites like Facebook, where images like this one have been posted, were used to organize today's walkout at the University of California.

1,100 faculty who’ve signed an online petition supporting the walkout.

Some campuses have also planned teach-ins, which will center on discussions about California's budget shortfall. The protests come in response to a number of actions taken in recent months by California’s regents, who approved a combination of furloughs and tuition increases to help fill an $813 million budget hole. Today’s demonstration has three stated goals:

  • No furloughs or pay cuts for those making less than $40,000 a year.
  • Implementation of a furlough plan endorsed by the Academic Senate, which suggested a portion of the furlough days be taken on instructional days. Many faculty say disallowing furloughs on teaching days – as the university’s systemwide leadership has mandated – disguises the true impact of the furloughs, and amounts to a pay cut for faculty whose responsibilities won’t be reduced.
  • Full disclosure of the system’s budget, which some argue has been insufficiently transparent throughout the budget-cutting process.

“I think there are real goals here,” said Joshua Clover, an associate professor of English at the Davis campus and one of the organizers of the walkout. “I think the three demands made in the letter are real and achievable goals, and I hope we get there, although I don’t think we’re going to get there with a one day action.”

The prospect of both faculty and students walking out of classes or not even showing up today has administrators scrambling. Patricia Turner, vice provost of undergraduate studies at Davis, said efforts are underway to keep the walkouts to a minimum.

“We’re taking advantage of every opportunity to encourage our faculty to meet their obligations and attend their classes, and to use other mechanisms for making their dissatisfactions with the fiscal situation known,” she said.

At the same time, there’s a fair amount of ambivalence detectable at Davis and elsewhere. Memos sent to faculty suggest a delicate balancing act, where administrators accept the prospect of a walkout without actually endorsing it. In a letter to Berkeley faculty, Provost George Breslauer and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said faculty participation in the walkout was “a matter of personal prerogative.’ They urged, however, that faculty who planned to walk out make their intentions known to department chairs so arrangements could be made for unspecified “alternative arrangements.”

Turner, a professor of African and African American studies at Davis, said “no ultimatums have been issued” to faculty who plan to walk out. Asked if she personally thought faculty were misguided to shirk their teaching duties, Turner said “I respect the academic freedom of my colleagues.”

Turner added that efforts will be made to send administrators to classes that are empty, so they can at least meet with students. Leslie Sepuka, a spokeswoman for Yudof’s office, also declined to condemn the walkout.

“I can say we respect and support the staff’s right to participate in these types of demonstrations,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We also expect that those participating will appropriately account for their time away from their jobs and/or classrooms in accordance with our policies.”

Critics Seek Broad Coalition

While campuses are prepared for the possibility of faculty simply not showing up for class, many say it would undermine their own aims to not at least make an appearance. Mike Davis, a professor of creative writing at the Riverside campus, said he does not believe students will walk into any empty classrooms today. Professors will meet with their classes, hand out syllabuses and discuss their concerns about the budget situation before leaving, he said. One of the objectives of the demonstration is to illustrate the budget problem to students, and communicating with them in class is part of that effort, he said.

The walkout planning process has been largely decentralized, and individual campuses have embraced some of their own stated goals or demands. At Riverside, participants are calling on university regents to cease future tuition increases – dubbed “fees” in California – and roll back the 9.3 percent increase they approved in May. In addition to the previously approved increase, regents will vote in November on whether to phase in another two hikes, bringing in-state tuition to $10,302 by next fall – 44 percent higher than it was in fall of 2008.

By including opposition to tuition hikes in their demands, Riverside faculty aim to win the support of students in a growing coalition.

“We’re hoping that when the students see this isn’t primarily about our own selfish interest, but we’re fighting on their behalf, that there will be a big response from students,” Davis said.

Today’s effort aims to bring together disparate groups that haven’t always rallied around the same causes. The walkout was scheduled to coincide with a one-day strike by the University Professional and Technical Employees-Communication Workers of America union (UPTE). UPTE represents the university’s research support professional employees and technical employees, who have charged the university with unfair labor practices in connection with layoffs.

One of the key endorsements for the walkout has come from the University of California Student Association (UCSA), which approved a resolution expressing solidarity with the demonstrators.

“There has been a real effort to spin this as faculty against students,” Clover said. “[That argument] doesn’t hold water at all. The UCSA resolution supporting the walkout makes it clear that no one is buying it.”

Some students have spent recent days promoting the walkout. On Tuesday morning, Jorge Serrato was handing out fliers about the demonstration on the Riverside campus. The Riverside senior said the tuition hikes have raised serious concerns among his classmates about whether they can continue at the university, and some have already opted to attend community colleges instead – although space is scarce on those campuses.

Serrato said Tuesday that he had already mapped out a plan for the demonstration.

“I am showing up to class and I’m going to announce to the whole class that we’re walking out,” he said. “I already e-mailed my professors and they said it was OK for me to do that.”

The walkout, however, is not universally embraced. Joel Michaelson, chair of the Academic Senate on the Santa Barbara campus, said he was sure there were some faculty who supported the action and others who viewed it as a disservice to tuition-paying students who showed up for class.

“We rarely agree on anything,” said Michaelson, a professor of geography. “There’s a range of opinion on it, clearly.”

Henry Powell, chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, showed no interest in even touching the subject of the walkout.

“I have nothing to say about that,” said Powell, a professor of pathology at San Diego’s School of Medicine.

State of Shared Governance Questioned

Underlying the discontent at the University of California is a concern expressed by some that a time-honored tradition of shared governance has been dispensed with amid a period of economic difficulty. That concern was exacerbated when Yudof rejected the Academic Senate’s recommendation that a portion of furlough days be taken on instructional days.

The furlough plan differs for employees based on their salaries. Those on the lowest end of the pay scale – making up to $40,000 – will take 11 furlough days or the equivalent of a 4 percent salary reduction. For those making more than $240,000, 26 furlough days or the equivalent of a 10 percent salary reduction will be required.

While staff are expected to actually take their furlough days off, few faculty see how they can take true furloughs. None of their responsibilities in teaching, service and research are being curtailed to accommodate furloughs.

“From a faculty perspective, it absolutely is a salary cut, and it was never portrayed as anything other than that,” said Croughan, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, epidemiology and biostatics at the San Francisco campus.

Medical center employees were exempted from furloughs to protect patient safety, but the centers had to develop alternative plans to reach equivalent savings. Given their appointments in medicine, some have questioned whether Croughan and Powell -- the immediate past chair and chair of the Academic Senate – are subject to the furlough plan. Both say they are subject to the furloughs – most faculty aren’t considered medical center “employees” – and will work through their furlough days like other faculty.

Supporters of taking furloughs on instructional days hope to reinforce the impact of the budget cuts to the public, but that sort of symbolic action is exactly what systemwide leaders decided against. Provost Lawrence Potts, who suggested Yudof not approve instructional day furloughs, wrote in a September 10 letter to faculty that he worried it “would be perceived as further burdening our students in order to make a political point with Sacramento.”

Yudof’s decision prompted a rebuke from the American Association of University Professors, which called it “at best unwise and at worst dismissive of a cornerstone of the UC system’s strength, its faculty.” That is not the way the chair of the Academic Senate sees it, however.

“Shared governance is a system whereby the faculty give advice, and by and large President Yudof has taken that advice on virtually all of the major issues,” said Powell, who wrote a letter disagreeing with the AAUP’s premise.“On this one [matter] he chose a different way, and we recognize the administration can make a decision even if it’s a decision that doesn’t agree with us. I think the Senate was disappointed in the decision he made, but on the other hand is respectful that on many different issues he has agreed with Senate.”

 

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