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But what of the children? Who will speak for them?

August 4, 2009, 11:07 am

As many of you know, the University of California is facing another round of brutal budget cuts. As a result, the UC has implemented a system of furloughs, whereby faculty and staff will see their salaries cut temporarily (currently the administration says a year, but we’ll see). The cuts are now a foregone conclusion. What remains is the question of how furloughs will be implemented by faculty. Our campus’s academic senate recently conducted an online poll. Respondents had two choices:

A) Recommend scheduling six to nine furlough days on currently calendared days of instruction.

B) Recommend scheduling of all furlough days on currently calendared intersession days when no formal instruction is scheduled.

This prompted quite a bit of discussion, both online and around the water cooler, as you might imagine. My sense was and is that if the state legislature chooses to impose what amounts to a a highly regressive tax (in the form of huge cuts in funding that necessitate furloughs) on a tiny subset of California’s population (most state employees), because it can not or will not tax all of the state’s citizens, then we (those people being furloughed) need to make sure that the rest of the state understands that cuts in funding will result in cuts in services. I also think that if we don’t cut services, we’re in effect saying that we were overpaid before, allowing that the Republican fantasy of the lazy public sector employee is accurate.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t understand the counterarguments. Which, if I’m not mistaken, go something like this: Cutting time spent with students is a pedagogically indefensible choice. Moreover, if we cut services in the form of contact hours with students, much as the furloughed employees of the Department of Motor Vehicles have cut the hours their agency remains open during the week, the people of California will be angry with us. Especially so, because the UC is also going to raise fees — again. So Californians will be getting less for more.

On the issue of teaching, I sympathize. Given that we teach here on the quarter system, losing more of the already scarce time we spend in the classroom with our students is going to be very difficult. In most cases, students will learn less. But these are very difficult times, and something has to give. As for the second argument, about the potential for a backlash against the UC, my initial inclination was to think that position represented good politics but lousy policy, that it was safe short-term thinking but would be self-destructive over the long haul. Now I’m not even sure it’s good politics. I say that because I think we have some responsibility to — along with a great deal of self-interest in — teach our students that taxes often equal services. Otherwise, we’re withholding an important lesson about the spuriousness of Libertarian arguments and allowing the myth of a tax-free Ponyland to romp free through the fields of our charges’ unbridled imaginations.

Seriously, I’ve been concerned lately that the state’s budget crisis, and crises like it around the nation, are being used as pretexts not only for slashing more services but also for redefining what constitutes a public good. On the one hand, it’s probably a decent enough idea to have this kind of discussion periodically. But on the other, we’re now talking with a loaded gun pointed at our heads, and that’s never smart.

Anyway, I was fairly sure the vote here would be quite close. It turns out, though, that my colleagues throughout the university are either more strategically inclined, more self-interested, or maybe both, than I would have thought. The finally tally? Nearly 82% of respondents believe that we should schedule our furlough days on days that we teach. Just over 18% disagreed. And 426 people voted, which is actually a pretty decent turnout, I think, for the middle of a long, hot summer.

Now we’ll see what the administration makes of this mess. It should be an interesting test for our incoming Chancellor, whose arrival is much anticipated.

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