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Focus turns to long-term impacts of state funding cuts as regents approve one-year furlough plan

| 16 July 2009

Union employees were louder they had the numbers, as well as the bullhorns but it was the UC chancellors' dire warnings of severe, long-term institutional damage from ongoing budget cuts that packed the biggest wallop at this week's meeting of the Board of Regents.

Busloads of angry staff and supporters were on hand at the Mission Bay campus of UCSF Wednesday morning to protest President Mark Yudof's plan for systemwide furloughs and pay cuts, meant to plug 25 percent of a projected $813.2 million shortfall in state funding for the next fiscal year. The Finance Committee approved the plan Wednesday, and the full board followed suit Thursday, leaving campuses to put it into effect on Sept. 1.

The plan, which Yudof unveiled last Friday, calls for a sliding scale of mandatory pay cuts and furlough days for most staff and faculty, ranging from 4 percent annual salary reductions in the form of 11 unpaid days for full-year employees earning less than $40,000 to 10 percent cuts for staff and faculty making more than $240,000 a year. On Wednesday, dozens of picketers carried placards and shouted chants to voice their opposition to the one-year plan.

But it was the devastating litany of budget pain from 10 chancellors that, as regents chair Russell Gould put it, "trumped" the immediate issue of furloughs, which most regents supported, albeit reluctantly. One after another, the chancellors described the on-the-ground impacts of funding reductions on their own campuses loss of faculty and staff, cutbacks in services, ballooning class sizes, erosion of diversity, and more prompting this summary of the system's condition from regent George Marcus: "We're the Titanic, and we're sinking."

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said Berkeley "strongly supports" the furlough program, which he said "will save some 450 positions this year" that would otherwise have to be cut immediately, a step that "would have rendered many units dysfunctional."

'We can manage for one year, but not beyond.'
– Robert Birgeneau
UC Berkeley chancellor
Already, he reported, the campus library has announced it will no longer be open on Saturdays resulting in "significant reductions" in work-study opportunities for students and may not have the resources to continue offering 24-hour services during exam periods, a longtime Berkeley tradition. Future consequences of funding cutbacks are likely to include course reductions of 8 percent or more, increasing the average time needed to earn a bachelor's degree to more than four-and-a-half years.

And he noted that UC is "the only university among our competitors whose faculty are taking a furlough," adding that faculty salaries already lag "some $25,000 behind our peers." Furloughs, he said, will widen that gap to $40,000.

"We can manage for one year," said Birgeneau, "but not beyond."

By the end of fiscal year 2010, said UCSF Chancellor Michael Bishop, his campus will have trimmed at least 60 staff and 355 faculty positions "a 14 percent reduction for a faculty of medicine that is regularly ranked among the top five in the nation."

Like schools at other UC campuses, the UCSF School of Medicine "has already shelved most faculty recruitment," and "delayed or reduced funding" for a number of programs. The School of Nursing, he said, had consolidated departments, eliminated training programs, and closed a family clinic "that provided care to 1,720 patients, 40 percent of whom are Hispanic."

And, as at other campuses, Bishop warned of a "loss of stature" arising from a growing inability to recruit and retain top faculty, particularly young academics who lack the financial means to work for below-market salaries in the Bay Area, which has one of the country's highest costs of living.

"Hanging in the balance," declared Bishop, a Nobel laureate, "is our ability to preserve accessibility and quality, to sustain our world-class instruction, research, and healthcare, to meet our obligations to community service, and to remain a humane and gratifying place to work."

Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, referring to the short-term nature of the furlough plan, told the board that the funding crisis facing the UC system is "not a one- or two-year problem," and that the emergency measures being taken now "will have repercussions for years to come."

Other chancellors told similar stories.

"We could read each other's statements pretty much verbatim," lamented Michael Drake, UC Irvine's chancellor, who recalled being told as a student that the difference between an A and A+ is "huge."

"We have always been an A+ institution," said Drake. But he warned that continuing budget cuts "threaten that margin of excellence."

Regent Richard Blum, who passed the chair's gavel to Gould earlier this month, called the chancellors' testimony "a sobering presentation if I've ever heard one," and joined others on the board in calling for more aggressive measures to get the state Legislature to fund higher education adequately in California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said, has "reneged" on his promise part of a multi-year "compact" with the UC and California State University systems to guarantee annual increases in state funding for UC's basic budget and enrollment growth. The agreement took effect in 2005, and was expected to remain in place through the 2010 fiscal year.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi the lone member of the Finance Committee to vote against the furlough plan, labeling it "a significant, devastating cut to the university's future potential" urged his colleagues to "get on the offense" by demanding that the state live up to its obligations to support higher education in California. He called on the regents as well as the system's chancellors to support AB 656, an Assembly bill that would place a 9.9 percent tax on oil and natural gas extracted in the state, and allocate revenues to the UC, CSU, and community-college systems.

According to figures from the Office of the President, the newly enacted salary cuts will save the system more than $184 million over the next year, or roughly one-quarter of the projected $813 million shortfall. Another 25 percent will come from increases in student fees, with 10 percent attributed to staff and operational cuts at UCOP itself. Chancellors, acknowledged Yudof, "have a formidable task in front of them" as they seek ways to trim the remaining 40 percent from operational and workforce costs on each campus.

The calls for "bold action" to generate increased state funding for UC rather than subsist on what Garamendi dubbed "a starvation diet" began early in the day, with a plea by UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor Sandra Faber, representing more than 300 UC scientists, to "solve the salary crisis."

Faber termed the situation "a tipping point," and said there is a limit to how far "sunshine, skiing, and good colleagues" can go in recruiting and retaining top-flight faculty. Referring to predictions that the state-funding pinch is likely to last for two to three years, she added: "We do not have that long, because our professors, particularly our assistant professors, are going to bolt."

At Thursday's meeting where the full board approved the furlough plan on a 20-1 vote, with only Garamendi dissenting Gould announced plans to establish a "Commission on the Future of UC," which will gather "the best minds available inside and outside our system" to find the way forward.

Gould, who was California's finance director under Gov. Pete Wilson, said the commission's charge will be "to develop a vision for the future of the university that will reaffirm our role in ensuring the excellence of the educational experience in the system, to help sustain California's economy and cultural life while recognizing that our limited state resources require us to be creative and strategic in meeting our mission."