In a couple of weeks, California State University system faculty — over 26,000 of them — are preparing to strike for five days. This infographic does a nice job of explaining why; the short version is that CSU faculty are not being paid as much as their peers (alarmingly, most need a second job to make ends meet), and a majority of faculty are part-time. This isn’t unique to the CSU system; while the cost of education has gone up in recent decades, a decline in state funding, as well as increased non-faculty administrative positions and an increased focus on student services, have forced budget cuts elsewhere. Often, the cuts manifest as stagnating faculty pay, or the replacement with full-time positions with part-time instructors or adjuncts who are poorly paid and may have little-to-nothing in the way of access to infrastructure or job security.
This trend hurts everyone. It hurts the PhD-holding faculty who make less than a fast food employee after >10 years of training or experience in higher education and research. It disproportionately hurts women and people of color (it’s worth noting that many CSU schools are minority-serving institutions). It hurts students who are paying top dollar for an education increasingly provided by a rotating collection of random faculty who can’t provide the same level of support as full-time faculty because they aren’t given resources, research support, offices, or enough money to get by (which means there’s no time for the kind of high-contact-hours teaching that students thrive with). Adjuncts and part-time faculty aren’t typically given a seat at the table in faculty meetings, so can’t weigh in on curriculum decisions or departmental policies that affect them or their students. They can’t hire undergraduate workers or provide hands-on job training. If you’re paying the tuition bills, you are increasingly paying more and more for less and less.
Full-time faculty like me are not immune to these changes, and are increasingly concerned about our job security and the quality of our work experiences, too. As tenure lines are replaced with part-time positions, we lose research expertise on campus, potential collaborators, analytical services that support campus research programs, and people who can serve on our graduate students’ committees. As tenure lines are replaced with part-time positions, the message gets out that tenure-track faculty are replaceable, too (even if that message ignores everything else that’s lost with us). Add fake tenure into the mix, and the trend is sobering. Meanwhile, as support staff positions are cut, full-time professors end up taking on more administrative burden — more time doing paperwork or sitting in committee meetings means less time preparing for classes or conducting cool, ground-breaking research. There are opportunity costs to devaluing universities that cascade through the system, and affect everything from our ability to stay competitive in a global research market to the quality of training we provide the next generation of citizens.
In the immediate term, the CSU strike is going to affect half a million college students over five days. But the problem is much broader, both for California students and for academics overall. The public relations war will already have started, and it’s not like faculty have a great public image to begin with (see my previous post on the myth of the lazy professor). Students absolutely do not deserve a week-long strike interrupting their education. But they also don’t deserve to be taught by underpaid, overworked, and under-supported faculty, either.
There’s not much I can do in Maine about the CSU system (I’m not a constituent, so my voice doesn’t count, politically). But I wanted to share my voice in support of my colleagues in the CSU system: fantastic scientists who work hard and care about their students, who fight the good fight for diversity in STEM and actively engage in outreach; people I consider model scientists and professors. People like Madhusudan Katti (radio show), Terry McGlynn (blog), and Sarah Bisbing (Early Career Ecologist website, Coastal Rainforest Margins Research Network). They are thoughtful, passionate, engaged, and dedicated researchers. They deserve our support.
What’s happening at CSU is happening everywhere, to varying extents, and they represent a growing culture of devaluing public universities — what Marilynne Robinson calls America’s Best Idea in this must-read essay in Harpers this month. So call your representatives if you live in California. Talk to your children attending CSU about why striking is a dignified, powerful last resort in the bargaining process. Write letters of support to combat the inevitable vitriol and misinformation. Show your support through what will inevitably be a challenging week. Because next time, it might be you, or me.