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Capital City Rumble

March 19, 2010

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Traffic is snarling here along Interstate-80, and a local disc jockey offers up a theory for the gridlock.

“Must be a furlough Friday,” the DJ proclaims.

Forced furloughs for state employees, including university professors, have become a way of life in this city, affecting everything from take-home pay to the evening commute. At California State University’s Sacramento campus, it’s difficult to discern whether anything resembling instruction is underway this Friday afternoon. Solitary students walk along empty sidewalks, and campus buildings are silent as sanctuaries.

Fridays have always been sparsely attended at Sacramento State, but furloughs – intentionally taken on instructional days to drive home a political point – have made the last day of the work week even sleepier on campus. Indeed, it’s hard to find any day of the week when an e-mail sent to one university employee or another doesn’t bounce back, proclaiming there’s no business being done.

The message is clear: Call someone else or check back later.

“Due to unprecedented state budget cuts resulting in furloughs, I will be out of the office,” one staffer’s e-mail automatically replies.

Photo: Sacramento State

Enrollment caps will mean more students are turned away in the coming years at California State University's Sacramento campus.

It is in the context of furloughs and diminishing resources that California State, and by extension its Sacramento campus, has emerged as the center of a political firestorm -- where the actions of lawmakers, the governor, and university system leaders are constantly second-guessed by a unionized faculty who have for years bemoaned what they describe as a broken model for funding higher education.

That political battle reached something of a peak in a monumental vote last summer, when members of the California Faculty Association decided to take unpaid furlough days in the hope of evading massive layoffs. Unlike the University of California, where professors continued showing up for class and accepted furloughs as pay cuts by another name, California State faculty are taking their two days each month.

While jobs are generally thought to have been preserved through the furloughs, faculty are finding plenty to dislike about the "days off" – and not just the average 10 percent pay reduction.

Seated at a coffee shop on campus, Winston Lancaster and Ernest Uwazie discuss the difficulties of taking furlough days when students still require attention, and classes need to be planned.

“You swear not to do anything that deals with the profession,” says Uwazie, a professor of criminal justice.

-- “and that’s impossible,” Lancaster interjects.

Lancaster, an associate professor of biological sciences, says it’s “actually created significantly more work” to accommodate furlough days, since he must compress what were once three lectures into two. Hearing that, Lancaster’s colleague, Kevin Wehr, mockingly suggests a way to cover anatomy lessons in a shorter time frame.

“I’ve got an idea,” says Wehr, an assistant professor of sociology. “You could say ‘Today we’re going to study the anatomy of a higher education administrator, because clearly they have no head.’ ”

 

Dispatches From the Crisis

This is the final article in a series

of stories assessing the impact of

budget cuts on California campuses.

 

Wehr, president of the CFA’s Sacramento chapter, has plenty of sardonic wit to go around – and his potshots are increasingly aimed at “powerful elements of the administration that view the union with mistrust and are committed to an antagonistic relationship.”

While bickering with campus-level administrators isn’t uncommon, the chief criticism perpetuated by members of the statewide union – affiliated with the National Education Association, the American Association of University Professors, and Service Employees International Union – is that system-level leaders have been politically inept. Those attacks have placed Charlie Reed, chancellor of the system, on the defensive throughout this budget crisis. But Reed, who says negotiating furloughs with 13 unions was a “nightmare,” seems impervious to the periodic calls for his head.

“I’ll be the target [of protest and criticism] if that makes them feel good,” says Reed, who was the object of a union "no-confidence" vote in July.

To hear Reed tell it, California State and the University of California are in a relatively enviable political position this Legislative session. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal would restore $305 million to the universities’ budgets, while other state agencies suffer further cuts.

“Everybody in Sacramento thinks we took their money,” Reed says.

But the governor’s proposal stops well short of making up for years of cuts to the system, and union critics suggest Reed has been duped before by empty promises from Schwarzenegger. The most overt example of this was the California “compact,” which Schwarzenegger proposed in 2004-5 to provide stable funding to universities in exchange for tempered tuition increases. That deal has unraveled in the last two years, however, and critics charge that the “compacts” were so readily dispensed with because they were toothless from the start.

Compact critics, who were particularly prevalent among union members, were concerned early on that there were no enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, there was a general unease that by celebrating the agreements with such gusto, Reed and Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, handed a tax-cutting governor a political victory before he'd actually delivered for higher education.

“These compacts are just window dressing,” says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association. “They don’t protect us even the tiniest bit.”

Year Actual/Proposed Funding Funding Were Compact Honored Difference
2008-09 $2.9 billion $3.2 billion $316,110,000
2009-10 $2.3 billion $3.4 billion $1.1 billion
2010-11 $2.7 billion $3.6 billion $863,774,000

Source: California State University System. Numbers in billions have been rounded.

In another blunt assessment, Wehr describes the unenforceable agreement another way: “How that’s translated in state government is, 'You’re chumps.' ”

But what’s the alternative? The governor, and even Reed, have shown no appetite for a tax stream to fund higher education, and there are few, if any, other scenarios that would lock in funding for universities.

“What other promise [beyond a compact] has sufficient gravity in terms of the law that the state Legislature and the governor would have to deliver on regardless of economic conditions? Short of amending the Constitution, I can’t think of anything,” says David Wagner, vice president for human resources at Sacramento State.

'Scrutinized and Ridiculed'

While handicapping the likelihood of the governor’s budget staying intact is a popular parlor game in California, administrators on the ground at Sacramento State say they are busy preparing for the possibility of significant cuts. All university divisions, which include large units like athletics and academic affairs, have been asked to lay out impact scenarios for budget reductions of six percent, 12 percent and 18 percent.

A committee of students, faculty and staff has been charged with reviewing the budget scenarios, and their suggestions will inform the university president’s decision about how and where cuts are ultimately made. Even critics of President Alexander Gonzalez, who received a 2007 no-confidence vote after faculty complained about his handling of the budget, say the University Budget Advisory Committee is a positive step toward greater transparency.

Fred Baldini, chair of the budget committee, says Gonzalez has purposefully kept himself out of the committee’s meetings, so as not to influence or appear to influence its deliberations. While the president hasn’t always taken all of the committee’s suggestions, Baldini says Gonzalez usually accepts most of what the committee recommends.

“I believe the campus as a whole would say there is transparency, and yes [the committee] has helped bring that,” says Baldini, a interim associate dean of health and human services. “What will happen is that some people will disagree with the decisions that are made.”

Moreover, the discussions occurring at the departmental level are described by some as painful and even degrading.

“A lot of us have been scrutinized and ridiculed,” says Lisa Marie Mederos, administrative support coordinator for the sociology department.

Mederos says the environment is such that staff are frequently forced to justify their continued presence on the payroll, and she’s personally had to twist arms to partially restore staff positions that have been cut in her office.

Mederos completed a masters in business administration in 2007 at Sacramento State; her husband is a student, and her child is in daycare on campus. She describes herself as part of a “Sac State family,” and says she wants to continue to be a part of the university. But the pressures of her current position are such that Mederos considers other jobs “pretty much every week,” finding “there’s actually nowhere to move up” in the university system.

One of the key pressures for faculty and staff at Sacramento State stems from the university’s efforts to reduce enrollment. California State plans to cut enrollment by 40,000 students, or nearly 10 percent, over three years, and that means more difficult conversations with students who are being denied access.

"This battle for resources, who is it that’s going to lose? In the end, it’s the students – the students who entrusted us,” Mederos says.

Joseph Sheley, provost at Sacramento State, says it’s unsurprising that morale would deteriorate during a crisis of this magnitude.

“The issue of morale, it can’t be very high when you’re in these things,” Sheley says. “Nobody wants to be saying, 'No, I can’t take another student.' It is kind of a cultural about-face [from normal operations].

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot one can do to put a happy face on what’s going on right now.”

 

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