Explaining Southern California's economy

The Cal State faculty strike highlights every single problem with higher education

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Slobodan Dimitrov/California Faculty Association

Elected officials and members of the Screen Actors Guild supported a faculty and student protest of budget cuts at CSU Dominguez Hills. Rally organizers oppose an administration process underway that could lead to cutting entire programs or majors.

You can't say that faculty members in the California State University system aren't patient. Since they gained the right to collective bargaining in 1983, they've...never staged a strike. Until now. Next week, the union will strike at Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State East Bay, two of the 23 campuses that make up CSU, which sits just below the University of California system in the state's educational hierarchy.

This is from the LA Times:

The group is protesting a decision by Chancellor Charles Reed to withhold pay raises negotiated for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 academic years. The raises, which would total about $20 million in the first year, stalled when the state cut education funding.

Sounds fairly straightforward, but it isn't. Here's why:

  • Both CSU and UC are trapped in the budgetary morass that is California. They're already been hit with $650 million in cuts and will suffer even more pain if revenue projection continue to disappoint.
  • Tuition has been hiked by 23 percent. That sounds like a lot, but CSU is still a relatively good deal in higher education, with tuition and fees of around $6,000 per year. However, enrollment has been axed, by 10,000 students — so fewer kids have access to that good price.
  • The faculty wants "pay parity" — existing faculty would be paid at the same level as new hires, who are getting paid more. In this context, what's rankled the faculty is that high-level administrators are increasingly being paid more than their predecessors. The new CSU San Diego president will get $100,000 more than the guy who preceded him.

This might be a spat among eggheads, but it has a lot of similarities with more recent blue-collar labor disputes. Labor wants more money and doesn't want older workers to be penalized by the pay scale. Administrators insist that they need to pay new faculty more in order to remain competitive. Management also wants to pay administrators more in order to attract the best leadership. 

This is all happening against the backdrop of a state financial crisis. California desperately needs to sustain its world-class educational institutions. But it can't afford to. It's up against further cuts to the UC and CSU systems, to the tune of $100 million.

I've argued that high pay for university presidents is a good investment. It still is, but these are extraordinary times. Confrontation isn't worth it. Labor and management need to engage in shared sacrifice.

That means lower and more dutiful pay for administrators, as well as faculty giving up on pay parity and raises, at least for a while. Right now, the students are the ones suffering. That needs to change. And fast.

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