As Humboldt State University continues to grapple with a major budget shortfall, the local chapter of the California Faculty Association has called on administrators to “push pause” on campus-wide cuts to class offerings, saying the cuts could further reduce the school’s diminished enrollment, thereby threatening the sustainability of smaller departments.
In a press release issued late last month, CFA Humboldt accused HSU management of “taking advantage of COVID-19 by pushing through unnecessary budget cuts and shifting HSU values.” And in interviews with the Outpost, faculty representatives say these cuts are falling disproportionately on overworked lecturers and jeopardizing the quality of students’ educational experiences.
The university, meanwhile, says it is neither feasible nor realistic to carry on without addressing the budget shortfall, which it attributes largely to declining enrollment. Since hitting an all-time high of 8,436 students in the 2015-16 academic year, enrollment at HSU has plummeted more than 20 percent, hitting a 23-year low of 6,431 this semester. (That figure, while low, was actually significantly better than expected.)
In an emailed statement to the Outpost, HSU Communications Specialist Grant Scott-Goforth said, “HSU’s 2020-21 Operating Fund Budget, prior to spending reductions, reflected a shortfall of $16.3 million this year. If changes were not made, it was estimated to grow to a $20 million gap by 2021-22 as previously anticipated.”
The administration managed to reduce ongoing spending by $7.3 million this year, leaving a $9 million shortfall, which is being addressed through a variety of measures, Scott-Goforth said. For example, 60 members of staff or faculty have taken early retirement offers. Tuition revenue from the higher-than-projected enrollment helped, and some “one-time funds” cushioned the blow.
The cost-cutting measure causing the most anxiety among staff and faculty, though, is this: Administrators have ordered “divisional spending adjustments,” setting budget reduction targets for each of the university’s three colleges — the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, the College of Natural Resources & Sciences and the College of Professional Studies.
Nicola Walters, a lecturer in HSU’s Politics Department, said these reductions are resulting in lecturers being laid off or falling below the workload threshold necessary to qualify for health insurance. In an informal survey of lecturer staff she conducted in September, one in five respondents had either already lost health care or expects to lose it in the spring.
“I had thought HSU would be doing whatever they could to keep lecturers on health care and employed,” Walters said.
Among those still working, the unpaid workload has increased dramatically, she said. In addition to the support students typically require with assignments, the campus community is now dealing with the cataclysms of 2020. Some students have been evacuated from fire zones; others have been forced to deal with power outages or fallout from COVID-19. And many turn to their teachers for help.
“It’s so much,” Walters said. At the start of the semester, lecturers worked long hours to convert their respective courses to online-only instruction, and now they’re worried about losing their health insurance or their jobs.
“People are scared and they feel sold out,” Walters said, “because lecturers are the ones who have been shouldering the burden to get HSU through this pandemic.”
Loren Cannon, president of the CFA’s Humboldt chapter, agreed. An HSU lecturer himself in HSU’s Philosophy Department, Cannon said he and his colleagues upended their own lives to keep HSU going. Many taught courses from their kitchen tables with out-of-school kids underfoot. “Those are the people being seen as disposable widgets,” Cannon said.
[Disclosure: This reporter is friends with both Cannon and Scott-Goforth.]
Cannon argued that HSU needs to “hold tight to the community we have” during this time of so many unknowns, including disruptions from the pandemic and potential policy changes from the new presidential administration taking office next month.
“Why are we doing this when it’s a new day from the federal government?” he asked. “We may be getting a new federal stimulus. What if student debt gets canceled? Some [students] might be more likely to continue on in their studies. … There’s reason to say things are going to get better. We don’t need to have those cuts right now.”
Benjamin Shaeffer, chair of HSU’s Philosophy Department and assembly delegate for CFA Humboldt, said faculty morale is really low right now. Unlike in large cities like Los Angeles, he said, lecturers who come to Humboldt County don’t have a lot of career options if they get laid off.
“We have people in our department and others who are lecturers but who are just incredible teachers,” Shaeffer said. “I just think we need to find better, more creative and equitable ways of dealing with it.”
He and others in the faculty union suggested that a “cut from the top” approach would be more fair and less impactful to students. Shaeffer pointed to a document from the University Resources and Planning Committee from last year, which laid out a set of guiding measures and principles for budget planning. It calls for putting students first while preserving and valuing staff and faculty.
Shaeffer and others in the faculty union suggest that there are less-harmful solutions to the budget gaps, including tapping federal stimulus money and the California State University’s $1.7 billion in reserves. Or cutting from the top.
Cannon suggested that HSU could implement “furlough Fridays” where administrators take one day off each week with a proportional cut in their six-figure salaries.
“I’m not trying to disregard their jobs; they do important things too,” Cannon said. “But we tend to cut the people who are teaching, and doing so at an extreme savings to the state of California because their salaries are so low. I think our priorities are off.”
Scott Goforth said HSU’s strategy for cutting costs was developed through engagement across the university. “The budget plan recommendation was developed by the University Resources and Planning Committee, which is co-chaired by a faculty member and has robust faculty representation,” he wrote. “That budget plan was reviewed by the University Senate.”
He also noted that cutting courses with low enrollment is “standard practice in higher education.”
Colleges and departments within the university are being left to develop their own strategies to meet the budget cuts ordered by administration, an approach that Walters finds convenient for administrators.
“The university would have to confer with the union if they were to institute lay-offs,” she said in an email to the Outpost, “but by putting pressure on department chairs to cut their budgets (which results in lecturers losing their jobs), they are circumventing the union. And the other bonus for administration is that they get to claim that [this approach] is shared governance. The end result: union members are being tasked with terminating other union members.”
In response to suggestions that HSU is top-heavy, Scott Goforth noted that the university actually has the third-lowest percentage of administrative staff in the CSU system. “And HSU has significantly increased the number of tenure-track faculty positions over the last several years,” he added. “In Fall 2015, tenure track percentage of our faculty was 55.5 percent and Fall 2020 tenure track percentage is 62.2 percent … .”
The union disputes those figures. It says the density of tenured and tenure-track faculty at HSU this year is only 47 percent, and that any increase from previous years is likely due to the reduction in lecturers. Cannon said he believes the discrepancy stems from the fact that HSU makes calculations based on full-time-equivalent positions while the union conducts a headcount — “because we believe each lecturer is a full person.”
Scott Goforth said administrators have sought to protect lecturers and professors alike. “University leadership has worked very hard during the pandemic to avoid layoffs of permanent staff and faculty, and have continued to provide jobs to many students,” said said. And he suggested there’s reason to be optimistic about the future, especially considering the potential for HSU to be designated one of just three polytechnic universities in the state.
“HSU has been overwhelmed with positive feedback from faculty, students, staff, and alumni from a wide array of disciplines as well as local, state, and national elected representatives” regarding that possibility, he said, adding that the designation could lead to more grants and donations while attracting students from across California and beyond.
Cannon is skeptical. “I don’t doubt that there’s been a lot of positive feedback, but we don’t know anything about this plan,” he countered. “It’s really easy to get positive feedback when you only give out positive information.”
Many of the faculty members he’s spoken with are concerned that while the polytechnic designation could bolster the university’s already well-regarded STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math), other programs might suffer, leading to even more layoffs.
“Those include faculty members that have dedicated heir lives to this institution,” Cannon said. Through all these fiscal ups and downs, the people with the most direct contact with students are being taken for granted, “the idea being that they’re the shock absorbers of a bad budget,” he said. “I’m against that thinking.”