Tarnished Jewel

University of California, revered worldwide for excellence, considers a bleak future as budget cuts threaten programs, recruitment, retention and access.

July 13, 2009

There’s blood in the water, and Vicki Ruiz knows everyone can smell it.

“The privates have come calling,” says Ruiz, dean of the University of California at Irvine’s School of Humanities. “I’ve lost very valued faculty members to Yale, to Northwestern, to Penn, to Pomona, to Scripps, as well as to even.… ”

Ruiz trails off, then gives a few more names, sounding a bit surprised to mention them: Lehigh University and Fordham University. Fine institutions to be sure, but not the sort Ruiz expects to lose to in a bidding war.

“We are not able to put together the counter offers that we have in the past,” she says soberly.

These are far from the heady days of 2007, when Ruiz was named dean of Irvine’s buzz-attracting School of Humanities. In that year, she hired 17 new professors. This year she hired four, even though nine searches had been planned. Ruiz has no illusions about returning to 2007 levels any time soon.

“We’re going to be a smaller school,” she says. “I think that’s certainly in the near future.”

The budget crisis facing the University of California, a 10-campus system serving 225,000 students, is without precedent. According to the latest projections – and these numbers change all the time – the system can expect last year’s $3.61 billion state budget to be reduced by about $813 million or approximately 20 percent.

California Beating
This is the first in a series of articles
on the state's budget crisis.
Subsequent articles will explore
the impact on the California State
University System and the state's
community colleges.

The university, however, is well financed from other sources like private gifts and grants. Its annual budget is $19.2 billion, only about 16 percent of which comes from the state. To put that budget figure into perspective, consider the fact that $19.2 billion is actually slightly larger than the gross domestic product of Mozambique. But while much of the larger university budget focuses on big research projects and specialized programs, the state funds are the key factor when it comes to paying for academic staffing and the undergraduate experience.

Given the university's dependence on state funds for vital aspects of operation, many university officials say the proposed cuts will force layoffs, damage retention, stall recruitment, reduce take-home pay for all employees, increase class sizes and limit accessibility – particularly for California's poorest students. There is even talk that the University of California cannot continue to exist as a 10-campus system, as evidenced by a letter from 23 San Diego department chairs who recently proposed that one of the younger campuses -- Merced, Riverside or Santa Cruz – be shut down.

A Difficult Case

Despite the dire warnings – and many say such doomsday scenarios are justified – the University of California in some ways has a difficult case to make. As one of the world’s premier public institutions, faculty and administrators have to convince state residents that an $813 million cut for a system with a total budget of $19.2 billion will have devastating consequences. In short, they have to confront a public that may be asking: So what?

Jack Miles, a professor of English and religious studies at California’s Irvine campus, concedes it’s difficult to make the case for continuing a robust and expensive research enterprise when elementary school teachers are losing their jobs and the state is writing IOU’s to pay its bills.

“It’s harder now [to make that case] than it would be in flush times; I don’t know that it has ever really been easy,” says Miles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography. “The American tradition has always struggled more than the European to be wholehearted in support of research or, on the side of the humanities, of arts or criticism.

“There are always people who call it frills and say ‘Who needs that? Who needs a symphony? Who needs a library?’ Those voices will always be around, and they become more compelling at a time of triage.… You may think that if you just provide the basics for everybody all will be fine, and you can skip the frosting on the cake. It may not actually work that way. It may be that you have to spend some money at the top.”

If the University of California hopes to sustain itself, officials will have to make a compelling argument that the state’s economy is inextricably tied to the “frosting on the cake.” Officials have tried to make this case, but Miles sees the state’s master plan – wherein the University of California serves as a research engine with competitive admissions for undergraduates, and California State University concentrates primarily on delivering bachelor’s degrees and specific areas like teacher education, as well as providing master's programs – as threatened by the crisis.

“These cutbacks would simply blow the master plan finally and definitively out of the water,” says Miles, describing a worst case scenario. “UC would be no longer a research university; it would be cranking out bachelor’s degrees. That’s the darkest vision.”

Amid the cacophony of voices, however, are faculty who say the darkest vision is a trumped up scenario put forward by the leaders of a wealthy institution trying to reduce its bottom line. That’s the case that was made by the leader of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians in the California system. Arguing that employees should not be subject to furloughs or salary cuts, Executive Director Karen Sawislak questioned whether the state’s undeniable financial crisis is in fact shared by the university.

“California’s fiscal meltdown does not mean that UC is suffering an equally dire crisis,” she wrote to the California president’s office in an e-mail that’s circulating among faculty members. “Indeed, many university operations (i.e., auxiliary enterprises, hospitals) generate substantial profits for the institution and fundraising and capital expenditures remain robust. The union does not yet see the justification for across-the-board cuts in employee compensation.”

Furlough Proposal on Table

Seeking to cut costs, California President Mark Yudof laid out a proposal Friday that would mandate furloughs for all university employees paid with state funds, exempting those paid on grants and graduate students. Employees on the lowest end of the pay scale – making up to $40,000 – would take 11 furlough days or the equivalent of a 4 percent salary reduction. For those making over $240,000, 26 furlough days or the equivalent of a 10 percent salary reduction would be required. The proposal, which would generate an estimated $515 million in savings, is headed for the Board of Regents' approval Wednesday.

In the interest of “equity,” Yudof had considered forcing furloughs on employees who are paid without state dollars. He decided against that idea, which had been widely criticized by faculty who said it wouldn’t generate savings and would make it impossible to hire postdoctoral researchers, who are the workhorses of any research enterprise. During a press conference Friday, Yudof said faculty dissuaded him of the notion that exempting some from furloughs would create two classes of employees and hurt morale.

“It could happen, yes, but I think the faculty has been quite mature about it,” he said.

California’s tenured and tenure-track faculty are not unionized, but about 35 percent of the system’s other employees, including lecturers, are in collective bargaining units. Those employees will now have to decide whether to accept the furloughs or face layoffs.

The furloughs will only address about one-quarter of the state funding deficit. Program cuts and layoffs will be used to cover another 40 percent of the budget gap, and previously instituted student fees -- classified as tuition in other states -- will address an additional 25 percent of the deficit. The last 10 percent of the deficit will be met by cuts in the president’s office.

The impact on hiring is expected to be substantial. At Berkeley, for instance, faculty searches are expected to fall from about 100 a year to 10 in 2009-10. There’s concern, however, even about the few hires that may be authorized. Frances Hellman, chair of Berkeley’s highly-regarded physics department, says she’s not interested in undertaking a faculty search if there won’t be sufficient funds to offer competitive start-up packages.

“I would rather not be trying to hire than to try to hire with my hands behind my back,” says Hellman, whose department has housed 20 Nobel laureates.

Amid all the doom and gloom, California officials are still talking about preserving excellence. But what does that mean in this environment?

“That kind of statement can either sound wonderful or it can sound like they’re going to ask me to do more for less pay,” Hellman says. “… I’m not going to ask [faculty and staff] to do the same amount of work for less play. We’re going to have to find ways to eliminate pieces of jobs.”

Cutting Programs Great and Small

Few observers of California’s fiscal crisis say it will result in a fundamental reshaping of the higher education landscape, but it is certain to imperil some core services as well as some of the unique programs that have brought character to the system. Among these programs is the “Dickens Universe,” an annual event that draws hundreds of scholars and members of the public to California’s Santa Cruz campus for discussions of Charles Dickens and the 19th Century.

John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project, says the program expects to lose all funding within a year. This is regrettable for Jordan personally because he'll potentially lose this part of his job if other funds aren't located, but Jordan also says the community will miss out on something that had become truly special. Scholars present papers at the conference as they would at any other, but there are also dances, teas and wine tastings – all designed to bring the 19th century to life for a few days in Santa Cruz.

“This is the most important Dickens conference in the world, certainly the most important regular Dickens conference in the world,” says Jordan, a professor of literature at Santa Cruz.

The conference had an annual budget of $64,000 a year, but with money getting tight the Dickens Universe was forced to compete with other multi-campus research programs for funding. Ultimately, outside reviewers considered 139 proposals and only funded 27 percent of them. The reviewers, who were faculty from California and many other universities across the country, sought to fund programs that have a systemwide impact and enhanced the university’s competitiveness. While many programs met that standard, the university only provided $12.4 million in funding for the $346.4 million in proposals submitted.

“Many excellent proposals are not funded,” Leslie Sepuka, a system spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Apart from niche programs like the Dickens Universe, cuts of major support services and degree programs are on the chopping block as well. The California Poison Control Center, which is administered by the university’s San Francisco campus, will be eliminated. That will make California the only state in the nation without poison control services. The Irvine campus has also halted admission to its doctoral program in education.

Higher Cost, Lower Quality

Even as California’s students pay more, they find that they’re getting less in the way of services. The Board of Regents approved a 9.3 percent tuition increase for next year, and Victor Sanchez is still trying to figure out what he’s getting for his money. The Santa Cruz senior and Los Angeles native says the Ethnic Resource Center, which helped him acclimate to life in Santa Cruz, has curtailed programming and internship opportunities due to funding cuts.

“The folks who come here are witnessing and experiencing what are catastrophic times, and it’s evident that we are paying a lot of money for what seems to be a lower quality education,” Sanchez says.

Among the changes that will potentially distress students are reductions in academic offerings. The University of California at Los Angeles, for instance, is considering a proposal that would dramatically reduce offerings of English as a Second Language classes that are required for many students.

In recent years, UCLA has offered about 25 ESL courses during the traditional academic year. The chair of the department of applied linguistics, where ESL is housed, has now proposed that only about seven courses that receive state funding will be offered over the span of fall, spring and winter, according to a longtime lecturer in the department.

“I think there’s a lawsuit here,” says Linda Jensen, a lecturer who joined UCLA in 1988. “This is discrimination. UCLA tells them they have to take a class, and then they can only take it during summer school.”

Olga Yokoyama, chair of the department, could not be reached for comment.

Many of the students in ESL classes are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and often seek work during the summers, Jensen says. Reducing ESL offerings during the academic year will make it more difficult for these students to work, and those international students who would otherwise return home will be forced to stay in the U.S. By moving the required courses to the summer, however, UCLA all but guarantees it will boost enrollment in more expensive summer classes.

“There’s something very wrong with the educational system when it becomes just about raising money,” Jensen says.

Dysfunctional Model

There is no question that California’s fiscal crisis has prompted some serious soul searching. Russell Gould, chairman of the university’s Board of Regents, announced Friday, for instance, that he and Yudof will co-chair a commission to examine fundamental questions about the university’s future. How big should the university be? Should California change the way it delivers curriculum? What alternative revenue streams are available?

“We can't keep limping along like this from budget cycle to budget cycle,” Gould said.

The commission is sure to run the numbers, issue reports and spark conversations across the system and in the Legislature. But the subtle changes that are already happening in California are, in many ways, the product of administrators and faculty making their own decisions about how best to move forward in a state where the economic landscape has shifted like the tectonic plates that lie beneath their feet.

During a recent meeting with fellow administrators, Stan Nosek illustrated the extent to which Californians in higher education are rethinking things. Nosek, vice chancellor for administration at California’s Davis campus, is nearing retirement, and he now believes his position should be eliminated when he steps down. Since there will be so few capital projects in the near future, Nosek thinks it’s best that his position be merged with that of the vice chancellor of resource management and planning, who oversees capital projects.

“It was kind of shocking to hear someone say 'I recommend that my position no longer exist,' ” Nosek recalls of the meeting. “I think that was a point for a lot of folks that they said ‘Wow this really is serious.’ ”

While Nosek’s announcement had a dramatic effect, he fully acknowledges that a little administrative reshuffling won’t come anywhere near addressing the University of California’s fundamental problems. Like many in the system, Nosek sees the university’s fiscal problems rooted in the state’s political problems. To appease lawmakers, Nosek says the university has cut deals that weren’t in its ultimate best interest.

“I certainly believe we have been part of the problem as far as leadership in higher education at UC, because we have allowed the political process to have too much influence on what we do in operating the university,” Nosek said.

The university has turned to the political process through ballot measures, for instance, to try to fix its financial woes. University officials lobbied Californians intensely to pass the initiatives, which would have extended tax hikes to preserve a revenue stream for higher education. The initiatives failed, and Nosek was among the Californians to vote against them. He saw the measures as yet another example of California failing to address fundamental problems, and using accounting gimmicks and stopgap measures to delay true reform.

“I didn’t vote for any one of those propositions and didn’t intend to, because it would continue the dysfunction,” Nosek says. “Honestly, I didn’t even think twice.”

As he heads toward retirement, Nosek says he simply has no idea what the coming months and years will hold for the University of California.

“There is no light at the end of this tunnel,” he says. “There is no bottom that we know of yet.”


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