My partner Georg had his first of 14 “Furlough Days” yesterday. As a Cal State faculty member, Georg’s furlough days are an indication of things to come for me. I teach Chicano studies, and I am required to take two furlough days per month in the coming 2009-10 academic year. So what did we do? We shopped, ate lunch, and went to a movie. As Northridge's president said,  “Let me simply … add that a furlough means that you don't work. That you're not supposed to work. That we don't expect you to work.” So we didn’t. We saw Julie and Julia, a story about a woman (about to turn 30, for some reason, a moment that causes her to reflect on the unfinished things in her life) who blogs her way through cooking Julia Child’s classic recipes. While the movie was so-so, the idea of “writing one’s way through” difficulties (even to write in order to find a reason for being) appealed to my inner writer and my outer writing teacher. Given our difficult moment, the fact that we both will be affected (eventually) by the furloughs, writing about this seems apropos. So here goes….
Although the University Corp (as a separate money-making entity of the university) is not really affected by the state budget cuts, in a symbolic demonstration of campus solidarity (to share the pain) the Corp offices are closed for the campuswide furlough days, Friday and Monday; although in an interesting use of language, these are now called “campus closure days.” This move, however, requires that Corp employees take vacation days to cover the down time at work (this is the pain).
One should be allowed to work, especially when one can, right? But we are in a weird time. One of my colleagues, a recently appointed administrator, admits that what is happening at Cal State is unprecedented. (Haven’t we heard that word used before in the past 10 years?) No one in the chancellor's office is giving much information, although there are “frequently asked questions [presumably answered?]” on both the Web sites of my campus and my faculty union. In a time when leadership matters, however, the chancellor is silent. This is, of course, aside from the pathetic (replete in his crumpled white shirt) video message  he sent to faculty where he implored us to “tell friends and family what the CSU does.” (No wonder over 70 percent of the faculty also used the vote to also voice their lack of confidence  in the chancellor: "Of those voting, only 4 percent said they had confidence in the chancellor’s leadership. 79 percent said they voted ‘no confidence’ and 17 percent responded ‘don’t know.’ "
One of my right-wing neighbors found this appropriate time to let me know her indignation with public education by saying, “Well, Renee, you ARE always on vacation.” Her husband followed up with a question, “So why is public education free?” Telling friends and family what the CSU does in this moment would be tantamount to giving history lessons (about John Dewey and Jane Addams) and reading off a list, “Well, during those ‘vacations’ I am often working on grants, writing my own research, mentoring students, attending classes, reading books, preparing for classes in the fall…” and the list goes on and on.
At the end of Georg’s furlough Friday, I finished reading a manuscript I am reviewing. But for most working class people, this sort of “work” (if they even call it that), is nothing compared to what they do when they go to work -- or so the thinking goes. Indeed, my right-wing neighbor has been also telling me about the terrible things that are happening at her job, about the vulnerability of older workers who are being forced into retirement, sometimes with good settlements and sometimes not, sometimes with their health insurance paid for and sometimes not. But management is fine. One of her bosses, after axing several employees, was promoted to vice president, along with a very nice bonus and salary.
In these unprecedented times, no one really knows what to do. Cal State faculty in a close tally voted to accept the furlough in lieu of systemwide layoffs and reductions in staff. On our department’s listserv, people are going back and forth voicing their concerns about serving students, while reducing “work time” by 9 or 10 percent. One colleague said that he felt it was immoral to under-serve students (who are under-served by education anyway). And what, he asked, are we do to anyway (in situations where faculty teach online); reduce our class content by 10 percent? Ask students to read only 90 percent of a book? Then we are supposed to take days off during the term. I do not know if my chair was joking when he said, “Just think…. You could go to a conference!” Wait a second, I nearly screamed. When I am at conferences, I am working, shoring up my skills so that I am a better professor and a better researcher.
At the end of the day, faculty will have a pay cut. We won’t work less. We will do amazing things with the resources we have and stretch those resources to the limit in order to bring students a quality education. Our amazing chair of some years ago put it succinctly when she said, “Like good Mexicans, we do a lot with very little.” In our department, I know, we will continue to be collegial, to watch out for each other, to do a lot with what we have. But from what I read in the newspapers, this is only the beginning of a very bad time. The real blood in the streets is supposed to flow next year, when there are no furloughs, when we will face layoffs of faculty and staff.
Renee Moreno is associate professor of Chicano Studies at California State University at Northridge.