Faculty Furloughs | August 24, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 34 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 34 | pp. 34-35
Issue Date: August 24, 2009

Faculty Furloughs

Public universities combat budget cuts by forcing employees to take unpaid time off
Department: Science & Technology, Education | Collection: Economy
Keywords: Economy, recession, furlough
Clemson chemistry professor Dennis Smith was among the faculty coping with furloughs this spring.
Credit: Frances Miller/Clemson University
Clemson chemistry professor Dennis Smith was among the faculty coping with furloughs this spring.
Credit: Frances Miller/Clemson University

With the U.S. economy in recession, states have had to slash budgets in response to reduced tax revenue. State-funded higher education has not been immune to the cuts, which have already resulted in hiring freezes and reduced funds for departmental supplies and equipment (C&EN, June 15, page 28).

“But when the state cuts back your budget by 20%, and 64% of the budget is salaries, that makes it pretty hard” to cope by using these sorts of strategies, says Kenneth C. Janda, a chemistry professor and associate dean of physical sciences at the University of California, Irvine. The only other option for the University of California and California State University (CSU) systems, as well as several other schools nationwide, is mandated unpaid time off, or furloughs, for staff and faculty.

How furloughs are implemented varies from campus to campus. If the furlough plans have any common themes, however, it is that they exclude university-employed undergraduate and graduate students and leave job responsibilities unchanged: University employees are doing the same job for less money.

At some schools, employees are explicitly forbidden from working during their scheduled furlough time. Clemson University, for example, implemented five furlough days for all employees during the 2008–09 school year in response to midyear budget cuts. Concerns about eligibility for workers’ compensation if someone were injured on campus during a furlough period meant that if administrators or supervisors saw anyone in their office or lab when they were on furlough, they were supposed to ask that employee to leave, says Stephen Creager, chair of Clemson’s chemistry department.

In the chemistry department, most of the faculty took advantage of an option to take furlough time in early morning—15‑minute increments over multiple days—so that they could essentially work as usual, Creager says. But even for faculty who chose to take unpaid time in larger blocks, Creager says, “we didn’t have any more trouble with classes not being held because of furloughs than we normally would have because of travel or other professional obligations that would cause faculty to miss classes.”

Staff tended to take the furlough time in full days, Creager says, but cross-training ensured that essential department tasks could be completed even if someone was out. “My staff employees were really good about covering for each other,” he adds.

Faculty and staff in the CSU system will be taking two furlough days per month during the 2009–10 school year. Employees at CSU Long Beach have been advised not to do so much as check their university e-mail when on furlough, says Jeffrey A. Cohlberg, chair of the university’s chemistry and biochemistry department.

CSU Long Beach plans to close and cancel classes for three days each semester in the upcoming academic year. An additional 11 days have been scheduled throughout the year as staff shutdown days. The remainder of the furlough time can be scheduled at the discretion of faculty and staff, in consultation with appropriate administrators or supervisors.

Cohlberg is trying to avoid assigning any five-day teaching schedules so that faculty will be able to schedule furlough days without interrupting instruction time further. “All the faculty I have spoken to are on board with this,” he says.

But losing even three class days per semester will still have an effect, he says, especially for science disciplines in which courses build on each other. “There will be less time to cover the material, but we can’t just slash the syllabus and still prepare students for the next course,” Cohlberg says. “Each faculty member will have to figure out how to deal with this,” perhaps by identifying some less essential material that can be skipped or by scheduling home-learning assignments on furlough days.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, is also closing on selected days as part of its plan to deal with a mandated eight furlough days per year for 2009–10 and 2010–11. In UW Madison’s case, however, the days coincide with noninstructional days: the day after Thanksgiving, the day before New Year’s Eve, the last day of spring break, and the last day of the academic year.

And faculty and staff at UW Madison are outright forbidden from scheduling their remaining four days when they have classroom commitments. Robert J. Hamers, chair of the chemistry department, expects that the remaining time will typically be set just before the beginning of the fall semester or over winter break.

At most universities, furloughs apply regardless of where salary money originates. “In order to not create different classes of people depending on where their money comes from, I think it was a smart decision to make it uniform,” Hamers says. For faculty or staff paid all or in part from grant awards, funds that otherwise would have gone toward salaries are simply reallocated to supplies, travel, or other expenses as allowed by the funding agency, department chairs say.

One unique case is that of Luis Echegoyen, a Clemson chemistry professor who is on leave from the university while serving as the Chemistry Division director at the National Science Foundation. Echegoyen is paid by NSF, but the money routes through Clemson, so he is subject to the university’s furloughs even though his working days are spent at NSF headquarters, in Virginia. Clemson has not drawn the funds for Echegoyen’s furlough days from NSF, and the agency has kept the money, Clemson’s Creager says.

Schools in the University of California system are still working out how to implement furloughs at their universities, after UC’s Board of Regents voted in July to implement anywhere from 11 to 26 furlough days for faculty and staff, depending on salary.

UC Irvine faculty members are discussing how appropriate it is to take furlough time when it affects classes, Irvine’s Janda says. Some professors believe that they should protect the students. Others argue that if the furloughs don’t cause some pain, then it’s setting a precedent that the university can ably operate with fewer resources. Echoing CSU Long Beach’s Cohlberg, Janda says that UC Irvine’s science professors are generally reluctant to let furloughs interfere with instruction because of the sequential nature of science curricula.

The University of Maryland, like Clemson, also coped with midyear budget cuts by mandating furloughs in the latter half of the 2008–09 school year. Furloughs at Maryland, however, were implemented on a graduated scale: Those earning the most were required to take five days of unpaid leave, and those making under $40,000 per year weren’t forced to take any unpaid leave at all.

There were no issues with having to stay off campus or with clocking faculty time, says Michael P. Doyle, chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department. And because staff tended to be in a “moderate” pay scale and had fewer furlough days, the department had no significant scheduling problems.

The biggest issue, Doyle says, is in morale. “I think that all faculty and staff were understanding of the furlough program, that really we were in dire financial straits and something had to be done,” Doyle says. At the same time, because job expectations didn’t change—and, in fact, many in his department were working harder to complete grant proposals for American Recovery & Reinvestment Act programs—it was easier to feel overwhelmed or depressed by the workload as paychecks were pruned, Doyle explains. He’s not sure what the lasting impact will be, but because he and his colleagues anticipate more cuts from the state, it is unlikely that spirits will improve soon.

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