CSU Salary Struggles Question The Reality of Meritocracy

By Connie Kwong "CFA activists march toward the State Capitol on April 7, 2015. Source: Calfac.org"

Last November, the California Faculty Association (CFA) negotiated a three-year salary contract with the California State University (CSU) administration. The contract provided a general 1.6 percent salary increase for all faculty members during the 2014-2015 school year. However, this was hardly the end to salary concerns faced by numerous CSU faculty members. The contract includes the option to reopen negotiations regarding salaries for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years, and the CFA has certainly seized the opportunity to demand a better bargain for CSU faculty.

Because the CSU system relies heavily on part-time and non-tenured lecturers to provide instruction, this fight has become complicated. During the 2013-2014 school year, 51 percent of CSU faculty had part-time status. In contrast, only 10 percent of UC Davis faculty members are part-timers. The financial struggles that adjunct professors within the CSU system face are part of a nationwide trend. In the 2012-2013 school year, 76 percent of all college instructors taught part-time. Like most of their counterparts nationwide, the CSU adjunct faculty is only paid per class taught and can make as little as between $11,160 and $29,000 annually.

Thus, the next round of CSU salary negotiations in May should not only seek to be more inclusive of non-full-time faculty, but also prompt us to consider how the financial and structural predicaments of higher education in the United States do not only affect students, but educators as well.

Mismanagement 101

Much of the CSU faculty members’ discontent can be traced back to administrative mismanagement. Perhaps the most striking demonstration of this is the fact that “over the last decade, the number of managers and supervisors system wide grew 19% while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty fell 3%.” According to the CFA, “the number of permanent faculty fell even as the student population increased 24% during that time.” In 2014, the average salary for a manager/supervisor, excluding campus presidents, was $106,149 compared with a full-time faculty salary of $64,479. Although salaries for full-time faculty increased 10 percent from 2004 to 2014, the salaries of both managers and supervisors increased 24 percent.

In November, the CSU trustees also approved a three percent pay hike for top executives, including Chancellor Timothy P. White and the 23 campus presidents. Furthermore, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has pointed out that the efforts to cut spending made by the UC and CSU systems during the recent recession “may have unintended consequences.” Bad budgeting for the sake of cutting costs has also led some CSU campuses to cut degree programs, including: chemistry at California State University, Los Angeles; German at San Jose state University; and both the human resources and psychology master’s programs at California State University.

While administrators’ salaries are small relative to the overall CSU budget, salary increases ultimately send a bad message. Instructors do the significant bulk of work at a university, and it simply does not make sense to prioritize administrators’ salaries. Additionally, while increased reliance on non-tenure track lecturers was one of the primary methods of cutting costs, the PPIC points out that this could negatively affect innovation, research, and other positive spillovers. In other words, the CSU system and California’s higher education policy need major structural overhauls.

 Teaching Woes

 As one recent report published by the CFA describes, “The job of college professor used to be a solidly middle-class profession. You didn’t expect to get rich from teaching, at least not in the California State University, but you could count on a life not so different from other middle-class, college-educated people. You could pay your bills, care for and educate your children, buy a house, and you could someday retire.”

This is no longer the case for many CSU professors, especially given the university system’s overwhelming reliance on adjunct faculty. The CFA report contains a wealth of anecdotal evidence. For instance, Loredana Lo Bianco is a part-time lecturer of Italian at Fresno State and receives a $2,500 monthly take-home salary from the university. It’s not enough to pay rent, utilities, car payments, and groceries, so Lo Bianco also teaches at a local high school. Stephen Campbell, a part-time lecturer of American history at Cal Poly Pomona holds degrees from three different universities, but also teaches at Pasadena City College to supplement his income.

Like 7 percent of adjunct professors nationwide, Campbell has been forced to rely on food stamp benefits and Medicaid. And just like three-quarters of part-time faculty surveyed by the (AAUP), Lo Bianco and Campbell are part of a troublingly large demographic of university instructors who hold one or more job, with the extra job typically not even involving teaching.

A Calling…to Poverty?

 In the November contract, the CFA did achieve some gains for non-tenured lecturers. For instance, all lecturers who teach over 15 units will now be paid for those units. Previously, being paid for additional units was discretionary and few campuses agreed to pay. The contract also established that all faculty with a master’s degree previously classified in the lower paying range of “Lecturer L” are now under “Lecturer A” pay status and eligible for salary increases of up to 5 percent. Additionally, the CSU asked the state for an additional $269 million for its 2015-16 general fund, with $11 million for hiring tenure-track faculty. The CSU has hired 750 tenure-track faculty members for this school year, and plans to hire another 900 next school year. Given that the CFA is indeed making an effort to make the CSU system more accountable to non-tenured instructors, this demonstrates how California can help set an example for other university systems nationwide to follow.

Nevertheless, these efforts still might not be enough to ensure that current adjunct faculty with PhDs don’t get left behind. As Ted Scott-Femenella, a part-time social sciences lecturer at California State University, Sacramento, pointed out, many part-time lecturers don’t have enough time to do research that can be referenced when applying for full-time tenure-track jobs because they need to work at multiple colleges to supplement their income.

In the CFA report, Campbell quipped that he “can’t ethically recommend graduate school.” Teaching is often hailed as a calling, and many of the part-time faculty members surveyed in the CFA’s report were quick to mention how much they love their jobs. But the intrinsic benefits are no substitute for extrinsic benefits like salary and job security. In most jobs, having a low salary that forces you to seek aid from public assistance programs would easily be a source of alarm.

Unfortunately, compensation is often an afterthought when it comes to the teaching profession. This seriously undermines the concept of meritocracy, which we would like to think is central to the world of academia. If this trend continues, we should expect to see a decrease in talented and intelligent people pursuing graduate degrees, and could find ourselves with a shortage of professors and researchers. For all the jokes thrown around about graduate students making a “bad choice” when pursuing academia, we must acknowledge and appreciate that they have gone to great lengths to pursue careers that are not only intellectually stimulating, but also essential to the development of a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. And for a nation like the United States that prides itself as a hub for meritocracy, the disequilibrium between educational attainment and financial or employment security faced by adjunct faculty members seriously questions the validity and attainability of the American Dream.