DAVIS, CALIF. -- The receptionist who once sat outside Stan Nosek’s office has been replaced … by a bell.
“Please ring for service,” a small sign reads.
Nosek, special assistant to the chancellor at the University of California’s Davis campus, walks past the bell and points toward several cubicles that once housed employees.
“Empty,” he says.
“Empty,” pointing toward another.
A few strides.
When staff members leave Davis these days, they are seldom replaced. By merging administrative units, Davis has cut about 150 positions, largely through attrition. There are more reductions and layoffs to come, and Nosek will spend the next few months trying to figure out where those cuts can be made with the least disruption to the university.
When he retires in June, Nosek won’t be replaced either.
In the final act of a long administrative career at Davis, Nosek is engaged in a task that is simultaneously tedious, rewarding and painful. He and his ever-diminishing staff are interviewing people across the campus, hoping to consolidate their decentralized duties. Davis is trying to bring an end to the days of a single employee who may spend a quarter of his time handling payroll and another three quarters juggling other duties. Far more efficient, Nosek says, is one employee with one job. Every department doesn’t need its own part-time technology support employee, when one full-time tech support worker could serve multiple departments from a single “shared services center,” the theory goes.
As would be expected, some of the savings from a project like this will be realized through laying off people. As Nosek and his team interview employees about their current duties, he says the interviewees are increasingly asking, “What do I have to do to be a survivor here?”
One of the beauties of higher education -- its decentralized respect for the mores of varied disciplines -- has also been its undoing, Nosek says. Over the last several decades, disparate departments have given ad hoc duties to multiple employees without centralized functions -- creating a metastasization of obligations that the private sector long ago determined was both inefficient and expensive.
The “shared services centers” project at Davis may sound good on paper, but individual departments often like the way they do things -- and there is pushback any time central administration comes down from on high and appears to be threatening the autonomy of university units. While not familiar with the specifics of the shared services project, a union leader says "what this will do is it will allow for fewer people to run around putting out fires, and it will leave more money for administrative bonuses or whatever."
Frank Pinto, an executive board member with University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE)-Communication Workers of America (CWA) at Davis, says the shared services project smacks of the kind of corporate "cookie cutter" approach the university has been increasingly criticized for employing in recent years. Pinto, who works in Information Technology, says that centralizing tasks like computer support will deprive the university of the kind of specialization that currently exists in individual departments.
"When the work is done absolutely in-house, you know the faculty, you know the grad students, you know the kind of projects they're working on and you can make really good suggestions and can do really good support work," says Pinto, a computer research specialist. "What happens when it gets shoved up to a higher level, everything becomes rote."
Nosek concedes that “without a budget crisis, it would be nearly impossible” to carry out this task.
Dispatches From the Crisis
This is the second in a series of
articles assessing the impact of
budget cuts on California campuses.
The final story will focus on
California State at Sacramento.
“You embrace change or you get run over by it. That’s the environment we’re in,” Nosek says. “No one is saying ‘Are we going to do this?’ That’s not on the table anymore.”
It's not that Nosek is unsympathetic to the raw emotions that inform a process like the one unfolding at Davis. Indeed, it was upon his own suggestion that his former office -- and his own position -- be eliminated as part of consolidation. But what Davis officials are confronting is a problem with no easy solutions. In the last two fiscal years, the campus has sustained a budget cut of about $150 million -- approximately 25 percent of its general fund. Projected shortfalls for 2010-11 are as high as $75 million, which would constitute a budget cut of more than 30 percent over three years.
Davis’s shared services project will aim for efficiencies in human resources, payroll and accounting services -- a $40 million pot of money. The initial savings are expected to be at least $8 million, and greater cost reductions are thought to be possible through further reliance on technology to deliver these services.
While no one likes to see layoffs, the current focus of the shared services project is less controversial among faculty than what professors see as an inevitable shift toward similar cost cutting maneuvers in academic units. There is talk, for instance, of merging the department of chemical and materials science with the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. That merger, which has academic implications, is viewed as a “manifestation” of the work Nosek and his team are now doing with less sensitive administrative areas of the university, says Bob Powell, chair of the Davis division of the University of California's Academic Senate.
“People are really quite concerned and people are scared for their jobs,” says Powell, who is also chair of chemical engineering and materials science. “And the other thing that’s starting to concern me is that the people making decisions about who stays and who goes, those people are under enormous stress.”
As discussions about altering academic units take shape, Davis officials are considering subjects that have long been taboo in public higher education. For one, Nosek says it’s worth investigating “which of the majors are subsidizing other majors.” While that kind of talk is common in for-profit education, professors are often leery of reducing the merits of particular areas of study to dollars and cents. Nosek says that university leaders will have to decide how or whether to use any cost-revenue analysis of majors, but that it’s a legitimate area of inquiry when considering serious cuts.
Morale Dips, Student Anger Mounts
The stresses of the budgetary environment have created an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear throughout Davis, stretching from students who say they can’t afford tuition hikes to financial aid officers overwhelmed by increasing demands on their time.
The economic downturn has had a compounding impact on Davis’s financial aid office, which has lost eight positions -- a 17 percent staff reduction. The staff cuts come at a time of increasing demand at Davis, where the number of Pell Grant-eligible students climbed from 33 percent to 37 percent in a single year. Katy Maloney, interim director of financial aid at Davis, largely attributes that shift to students' parents being laid off and other products of the recession.
“I’ve never worked as many hours as I’m working now,” Maloney says.
With a black leather jacket, fiery red hair and a small nose ring, Maloney embodies the laid-back air of a campus community that often prefers jeans. But the casual sensibilities that have defined the institution since it became the cradle of the “Funk Art” movement in the 1960s have given way to something altogether different. Staff meetings that were once jovial are now tense, Maloney says. There’s less joking and more sniping, and at a recent Friday meeting Maloney says she was struck by all of the dour expressions in the room.
The emotional toll of the crisis extends to students, who see a connection between economic stressors and a recent spate of racially motivated incidents on their campus and throughout the University of California.
Mark Schwartz, a Jewish student at Davis, says he was repulsed -- but not necessarily surprised -- to learn that a swastika had been carved on the dormitory door of one of his Jewish classmates, only to see the symbol spray-painted on the campus days later.
“Whenever there is a financial crisis, some people are going to become activists and others are going to direct [their frustrations] toward hatred,” Schwartz says.
The pressures on students, who have seen tuition increase by more than 30 percent in the last year, are intense, Schwartz says. A number of students are taking as many credits as possible, trying to get out in three years. Other students, struggling to pay for the hikes, say they are taking on grant-funded jobs to circumvent university rules designed to prevent students from working more than 19.5 hours per week. Jobs funded by grants aren’t counted as hourly, so students can take multiple such positions and not be considered in violation.
Osaretin Ogbebon, a Davis student, says he’s often so wiped out from his tutoring job that he has trouble mustering the energy to do his classwork.
“Every day is a struggle because of [working] yesterday,” he says.
The financial struggles endured by Davis students and their families over the last year are illustrated by the increasing number of students who sought greater financial aid in the middle of the year. Davis's financial aid office nearly doubled the number of "special circumstances" reviews it conducted in 2009-10, bringing the total number of reviews to 569. Most reviews are conducted when students or their families experience a loss of income.
While students' frustration may be justified, they have not always harnessed their energy in a way administrators view as effective. During an outpouring of protests March 4, some Davis students entered a standoff with police when the students threatened to block traffic on a busy interstate. The protest mirrored tactics employed by students on California’s Berkeley campus, where students marched to Oakland -- the location of the university system’s headquarters -- and disrupted traffic on Interstate 880.
The morning after the protests, Pat Turner sits in her office shaking her head. While sympathetic to student unrest, the vice provost for undergraduate studies is baffled by the tactics.
“You’re getting up on the freeway?” she says, smacking her forehead. “What are you, nuts?”
Turner says she has been disappointed by news media coverage that characterizes the protest movement at Davis as far broader than it truly is. On a campus of roughly 30,000 students, the protests actually haven’t included more than 1,000 people at any one event, Turner says. Far more common than freeway blockers, she argues, are students piling up as many credits as possible to get out quickly.
“Our students, they’re at Taco Bell working,” she says. “They’re not protesting.”