Teaching in tough times

Pay cuts are better than layoffs.
In the situation faced by UC faculty, calling them “furloughs” is better than calling them pay cuts.
So I don’t see any moral imperative to act out the idea of a furlough by teaching less.

It seems to me that Mike O’Hare starts from a false premise in his analysis of whether UC professors should deliver less teaching in response to the decision – taken by the university administration but driven by the legislature and the governor – to pay us less money.

That analysis starts from the fact that spending less money generally means getting less service, unless the management works hard at process improvement. Since the university is getting less money, and the management is not working hard at process improvement, the truth, as Michael sees it, is that the elected leadership of the state has decided to buy less in the way of university services, and it would be dishonest to conceal that fact from our students.

But there’s a different place to start the analysis. Due to the basic dysfunction of the state government, the folly of the voters led by the cynicism of the politicians, and the macroeconomic crunch, UC has much less money to spend than it anticipated. Since the vast bulk of the total expenditure consists of salaries, there were two responses: pay the existing employees less, or lay some of them off.

It seems to me a sound principle that employees, in such a situation, ought to share the losses rather than imposing them all on the most powerless or unlucky among them.

I would far rather take an 8% pay cut than face an 8% risk of being laid off, and if in fact my risk of layoff would have been less than 8% that could only be because someone else would face a higher risk. So I claim that salary cuts are more equitable and more efficient as a means of dealing with a surprise – and possibly temporary – budget crunch.

For various technical reasons, it was advantageous to the faculty to disguise the salary cuts as “furloughs.” But since we don’t punch timeclocks or accumulate vacation time, the notion of a furlough is meaningless as applied to faculty. We have work to do, and have to manage our own time to get it done. That is one of the great advantages of university teaching over most other forms of white-collar employment: to a first approximation, we don’t have bosses.

So it seems to me perfectly appropriate for us to just suck it up, rather than insisting on delivering less in the way of services to our students. No one would have suggested, if instead we got a 5% across-the-board salary hike, that we teach more as a response; I don’t see why what’s false on the way up should be true on the way down.

Now if the budget crunch turns out to be chronic rather than transient, I might come out the other way on the salary-versus-headcount question; perhaps we should shrink the size of the faculty in order to continue to pay competitive salaries and thus avoid losing our best colleagues. Whether we should at the same time shrink the size of the student body, or instead deliver an increasingly debased product to the same number of customers, is a different question. Or we could take fewer California students, now that California has decided it doesn’t want to pay for their education, and more out-of-state students prepared to pay full freight.

Note that, unlike the threat of teaching fewer classes, which neither the legislature nor the governor will care about, the threat of accepting fewer California high school graduates will hit them where it hurts. We should include in every rejection letter a paragraph explaining that, in ordinary times, we would be delighted to accept such a highly-qualified applicant, but that budget decisions made in Sacramento require us to reject him or her instead.

In the meantime, I’m going to go right on teaching. I’m less concerned about ratifying the dishonesty of the politicians who pretend that services don’t have to be paid for than I would be about committing my own dishonesty by assigning the same course credit for a course that has been hollowed out.

And I’m also going to try, once again, to get my colleagues organized to point out to the legislators, the governor, and the voters why wrecking the finest public university system in the world is a rotten idea. (See sample below.) The best way to deal with the budget crunch is to make sure that it’s temporary.

The Hon Karen Bass


California State Assembly

Madam Speaker:

The people of California own the finest public university system in the world.

The UC system, which spends only 3% of the state’s budget, has long served as a major engine of California’s economic growth. Not only does it turn out the well-educated and innovative workforce that makes California attractive to high-wage industries and generate the new knowledge on which those industries thrive, it also attracts billions of dollars a year in research funds from the Federal government, foundations, and companies. Most of all, the University has held out the promise of an excellent higher education for any student who can do the work, regardless of family income.

All of that is now in grave peril. To save half a percent of the state’s budget, the Governor proposes to take a wrecking-ball to the University. The proposed cuts would lead to a hemorrhage of talent from the ranks of faculty and graduate students, and the combination of tuition increases and the end of the Cal Grants would slam the door of opportunity in the face of bright students from working-class families.

The threat is not new; even in the boom times, underfunding had been eating away at the fiscal underpinnings of excellence. In 1970, UC spent about 70% of what Stanford spent to educate an undergraduate; now that figure is near 30%, and the funding for enrollment growth is

at an even lower rate. Are we really ready to make excellence in higher education a preserve of the wealthy?

Meanwhile, some of your legislative colleagues propose to eliminate the independence of the University of California as enshrined in the California Constitution, which would virtually guarantee a descent into mediocrity.

I ask you to raise your voice in defense of one of California’s proudest achievements and most valuable resources. All of the Governor’s proposed cuts to the UC system should be restored, and UC funding be put on a predictable basis, not subject to the whims of the annual budget process. And of course the attempt to convert the University to merely another state agency should be strongly rebuffed.

Please let me know what you plan to do on this urgent issue.

Sincerely yours,

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com