Furlough Realities

It's time to be honest about pay cuts and their consequences, writes Shaun Johnson.

October 20, 2010

How do furloughs work for educators? Let me be clear: I am both happy and thankful for being invited onto the tenure track my first go-around, given the precarious economic situation and academic job market in 2008-9. I’ve taken very little for granted in the past year or so. What could I possibly have to complain about? Working conditions are not hazardous — well, outside of faculty meetings at least. Many of us have relative autonomy — that is, when no one is looking. We ultimately get paid to pursue issues and topics that we enjoy. Wall Street folks feel justified in their gripes over new regulations and a 3 percent increase in their marginal tax rate, despite making money hand over fist. Maybe we can offer a humble university professor some license to complain … about furloughs.

This is the third year in a row my university is subject to furlough plans; there is no consensus on whether there will be a fourth. The current plans are progressive, which means that the amount of furloughed time is directly proportional to one's salary. In my case, as a new faculty member, I must relinquish roughly a week’s worth of time and pay. The furlough concept vexes me for two reasons. At first — less so now that I am in my second year — it was a bitter pill to swallow when I crept out of graduate school, making practically nothing for some of the work that I do now, and hearing at one of my first faculty meetings that I was already getting a pay cut. Just when I was about to draw a steady paycheck, there was discussion of taking money away. Having never worked for state government, the furlough concept was completely foreign to me. I grappled with the idea that as a professor, I was an employee of the state, and therefore subject to furloughs. When a sanitation worker goes on furlough, trash doesn’t get picked up. We all see that, and it’s a highly visible and olfactive inconvenience.

As a professor I was informed that the furloughs must impact academics as little as possible, which I completely understand. Yet, with the explicit prohibition on canceling class, skipping a faculty meeting, or slashing committee appointments, all of my so-called furloughs encompassed the multitude of tasks that I complete in private. This includes planning, grading, answering e-mail messages, reading, writing, research activities, professional meetings, and reviewing manuscripts or proposals. No dignified or obvious public response is permissible. Not one person feels the impact or the insult of furloughs other than the individual faculty members. It is also true that few faculty members will actually refrain from any of the above activities during a mandated furlough day because that’s just twice the amount of grading or e-mail messages that have to be dealt with the next day.

The second problem with the furlough (read: pay cut) scenario has a lot to do with my former life as a public school teacher. This is why I might be more offended by the requirement to not only take the pay cut, but also track the exact days on which I supposedly slough off to "earn" it. No one ever understood my job as a teacher except for those who actually taught. To many, our job consisted of roughly six or so hours of hanging out with a bunch of kids. We do that for several months, are given generous breaks in between, and we have the entire summer off to travel, mow the lawn, and basically waste our nation’s valuable tax dollars doing nothing.

I can appreciate how people have this view; it’s a difficult myth to dispel. If anyone took the time to really examine what goes on behind the scenes, or if teachers were actually given a voice to speak out, one would see a person lugging stacks of notebooks home on a daily basis. More stacks of books and binders would go home on weekends. They’d see teachers going in sick to work because it’s too much trouble to call in a sub. Parents undermine your judgment at almost every turn, you can’t use the restroom for hours at a time, lunch lasts for 20 minutes and largely consists of leftovers or snacks in the fabulously accommodated teachers’ lounge, and all the while you have to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy that chips away at your professional autonomy.

So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.

What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate. As an aside, I admire faculty members who are able to take a stand, put an outgoing message in their e-mail, stating that they are on furlough and will not answer messages today because they are indeed on furlough. I wish I could exercise a little self-control and actually take a day off here and there. As a new faculty member, I just don’t have that luxury. The demands to publish, research, and stay current with the latest and greatest teaching gadgets and techniques are too great.

Let us call it what it is: a pay cut, not a furlough. The latter concept cannot apply to educators unless we can furlough our public duties. Dealing the blow within our private responsibilities — in our offices, at home, or away at meetings — reads as if these duties are not as valuable. Because they do not generate revenue explicitly, private functions like reading, writing, and research are expendable. But in similar ways in my public school teaching, there would be no teaching — no effective teaching — without all that educators do behind the scenes. Without a furlough of our public duties, no one can understand the message and the impact of budget cuts. Educators take the hit in silence, and it is this lack of defense of our private duties that perpetuates the myth in the general public that educators have none. We clock in, teach our students, and then clock out.

It’s hard for me to criticize furlough plans because I know people are losing their jobs. Perhaps my pay cut, combined with all the others, will save a few jobs here and there. I’m happy to do that, if that is indeed what I’m doing. If I make it hard for students and parents who are paying more for my services than ever, they just won’t come back, or they will pursue their education elsewhere. Long term: that’s not good for business.

When I complain about pay cuts or furloughs, I end up feeling like a selfish jerk afterward. But universities are dropping the ball in their handling of furloughs and pay cuts. There’s a considerable amount of resentment and suspicion of administration due to the precarious economic situation. In order to alleviate tensions, the leadership could acknowledge faculty as they get stiffed. Would there be harm in canceling just one meeting? How about free parking passes for faculty or free meals on campus, assuming that eating on campus is a pleasurable experience? I won’t even get into deferred compensation plans, but that’s also a good option.

There are numerous potential gestures out there that could be easily seen as a tip of the cap to our troubles. If teaching and other official duties are deemed sacrosanct, even though a host of other requirements are intensified, something will eventually have to give. Until furloughs or pay cuts explicitly affect what occurs in the classroom, the shift of the burden to the private realm, as has happened with K-12 teachers, will force the issue further underground and out of the public eye. Educators of all stripes and levels will continue doing the same job, but for less and less.


Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.


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