The Sciences

Walkout at the University of California

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwaySep 23, 2009 5:46 PM

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Tomorrow, thousands of University of California faculty will walk out in protest of state budget cuts, furloughs, and increases to student fees. The action will happen across all ten UC campuses (can you name them all?) and is supported by simultaneous strikes by two unions (UTPE and CUE) representing clerical and technical employees of the university. Here at UC Davis, there is a large rally planned for the main quad in the morning to draw public attention to the issues. Since my last post on this topic, when it appeared that there would be salary cuts announced, there indeed were. But, especially in the summer, things happen slowly at universities. The original proposal was to give everyone except graduate students a 5% pay cut. The faculty were asked for their input on whether they preferred a pay cut, a salary reduction, or a hybrid. Once it was established that the format would be furloughs, we were asked if furlough days should be on teaching days or not. Despite the overwhelming sentiment of the UC faculty that the students should feel some of the pain of the budget cuts (which they already do through increased fees this year and next) the UC Office of the President elected to mandate that furlough days not be on teaching days. Many of us thought that it was completely crazy to make pay cuts apply to everyone. For example, on the federal grant on which I am principal investigator (meaning I manage the budget) we pay our postdocs 100% from federal funds, including their benefits and overhead, which is essentially a tax paid to the university. Cutting the salaries of our postdocs would have only a negative effect on the university budget, and would demoralize the most productive research workers at the institution. It would damage for years our ability to attract good people. These arguments won out, and so the furloughs apply only to faculty and staff. (The application to medical school personnel is even more complicated - we won't go there.) In the end, the faculty furloughs are on a graded scale according to pay, tooping out at 10% for those making over $240,000 per year. (You can see everyone's salary in the whole UC system using the nice tool provided by the San Francisco Chronicle...it's eye-opening.) But even faculty and staff earning less than $40,000 will get a 4% furlough, which, to many of us, seems cruel. Anyway, things simmered along during the summer, with anger building steadily. The walkout was planned about a month ago, and has really caught fire now. But then, last week UC President Yudof, faced with the spectre of even deeper cuts next year (when federal stimulus money for the state of California runs out), and a continuation of the "fiscal emergency" he declared into the next academic year all but certain, he announced plans to dramatically increase student fees by 30%, to over $10,000 per year for the first time ever, in addition to the 9.3% increase pushed through in May to help close the budget gap. Ultimately, we all realize that the budget problems we face stem from the poor economy coupled with the effects of Proposition 13, passed over 30 years ago. By requiring a 2/3 majority in the state legislature to pass budget actions, it has led to a tyranny of the minority, a minority of, yes, Republicans who simply will not accept any new tax no matter what it does to the future of the state. Prop 13 caps property taxes at 1% of assessed value of a home, and caps the rate at which that value can rise to 2% per year, unless the house is sold. Clearly in a housing market that saw huge increases past decades, with far faster increases than 2%, this has led to enormous inequities in tax rates. For example, though my neighbors across the street have a house worth about what ours is, they pay about a quarter of what we do in taxes. This has benefitted the elderly greatly, and was a strong motivation for Prop 13 originally, but it has hamstrung the ability of both the state and local governments to support education, both K-12 and higher education. We, as a state, are eating our seed corn. The University of California and the California State University systems are a tremendous engine for both long and short term economic growth. From this great compilation of statistics about UC let me just point out a few:

  • More than 220,000 students are enrolled in the University of California.

  • For every dollar of state money, the university secures six dollars in federal research money.

  • UC researchers patent three new inventions per day.

  • UC has the highest proportion of low-income students among the country’s top research universities.

It's just stupid to think that de-funding the university will not seriously damage the state in the long run. When I am out on the quad tomorrow, it will be with the intention of motivating the leadership in this university to fight, fight like hell, to make the case to the public and the legislature that we MUST support a public option for higher education. So far I haven't seen the passion. President Yudof, and the chancellors of the ten campuses should all be out there on radio talk shows, TV, and the print media making the case to the public that this situation is dire. They should join forces with other state institutions to over turn Prop 13.

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