Let's get a little down to earth here at PEA Soup: I may have to confront an actual ethical quandary in a few months, and I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts about how I ought to respond.

Budget woes in the California State University system are severe.  One possibility being considered for the fall is to reduce personnel costs by imposing 'furloughs' on all CSU employees, faculty included.  This would mandate that faculty take 1-2 days off per month and take about a 5% cut in their gross pay. Now, as I gather most people understand, I don't actually teach, attend meetings or even come to my campus 5 days a week. The norm is that I come three or four days a week, and often spend the other weekdays, my evenings, and my weekends doing much of the work that constitutes my job (preparing class meeting, grading papers, doing my philosophical research and writing). There's definitely five days per week of work, just not five days per week at work.

The issue is: Should I respond to the furlough mandate by working less, the equivalent of 1-2 days per month? And if so, where should I reduce my efforts? Some possibilities:


I could do nothing and essentially absorb the furlough. After all,
given my work patterns, I can simply do what I've always done. It's not
as if the state will ask me to report which 1-2 days per month I'm not
working that I used to work!  The problems with doing nothing are
twofold: First, assuming that my existing salary adequately reflects
the value of my work, then it seems unjust to me to do that work while
being paid less for it. The state is legally entitled to impose the
furlough, but it does not seem like an unjust response for me to work
less for less pay. Second, working just as much sends a misleading
message to students and to the general public: that diminishing
resources for public education won't affect faculty performance and
educational quality.  Not to be too political here, but very often I
suspect the general public would in fact like something for nothing (or
more charitably, a lot for very little), and indeed, the present
budgetary crisis is at least in part the product of that irrational
attitude. The lack of funding has led to severe monetary constraints,
but I fear that doing nothing hides those constraints (and their effect
on educational quality) from the public. And as a teacher, I see myself
as educating my students not only in my discipline, but in a more
general way, to shape their choices and attitudes on the basis of a
realistic and clear-eyed worldview.

But supposing I work less — where should the reduction in effort come?
I could do less by way of research. But I find research rewarding and
it's clearly in my professional interests to be a productive scholar. I
could actually not come to campus once per month, perhaps on a day I'm
supposed to be teaching. But that hurts students. I could perhaps teach
less effectively — returning student papers more slowly, offering less
feedback, etc. But that hurts students too. And to my mind, students
are mostly innocent in this situation — I should mention they're also
being asked to pay much higher tuition this year — and so it's wrong to
ask them to bear the costs of the crisis. So I don't see a place to
reduce my efforts that isn't injurious to myself or to other innocent

So: is there a way to treat myself fairly, send the right message about
the budgetary realities to the students, and not harm or shortchange
innocent people? I'd be interested in hearing some creative responses
that I might have overlooked.

25 Replies to “The ethics of the faculty furlough

  1. It seems to me that academic positions are not the sort of positions where there’s understood to be a connection between pay and hours worked. To see this, compare two scholars, same seniority, same department, same institution: one who produces brilliant research by working 100 hour weeks, and another who is a natural genius and produces research of equivalent quality on the fly (call that person, say, Kripke). I take it that everyone ordinarily thinks that those two people are entitled to the same salary.
    So if you’re going to cut back on anything, it shouldn’t be hours but outcomes… perhaps in department service? (“Ok, I’ll take my furlough days on committee work…”)

  2. Paul, you’re right that pay and hours worked aren’t assumed to be connected. It’s a task-compensated profession. But implicit in the furlough is that we are supposed to work less as a way of offsetting the cut in pay. The reduction in hours worked is simply the state’s way of quantifying that reduction in work. So I like your way of putting it in terms of outcomes: Committee work is an interesting possibility. But the Kantian in me asks whether that can be universalized: yes, my university could probably operate without my serving on various committees, and perhaps without some committees even existing. But not everyone could do that, since the essential committee would go undone.

  3. I am a grad student at Arizona State University, where similar measures have already been enacted, and have therefore given this some thought. It does seem to me like, given the nature of academic work, that many of the furlough-takers are, in effect, being asked to absorb the pay cut, and that is morally suspect.
    However, I do think that it is acceptable for those forced to furlough to reduce their teaching efforts a bit, because there is a morally relevant difference between the burdens professors and students are being asked to shoulder. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but it seems that many (tenure-track) professors are employed under standing agreements with certain terms, including salary specifications. On the other hand, it is well understood that each academic year, students are free to choose whether or not they will purchase the package of products a university is selling. Everyone knows that the price for this package changes year to year, and so does what is included – for instance, I have to pay for my bus pass this year, whereas last year it was free. Since the furloughs are not secret, students could easily figure out that the professors they are employing with their tuition dollars have been shorted salary-wise, and that the teaching quality will be slightly less than what it otherwise would have been. As long as your teaching still fulfills reasonable expectations for, say, a three hour introductory course, I don’t think you would be doing anything wrong to scale back a bit in your efforts. Tampering with a standing employment agreement is morally worse on the part of the university than offering students the choice to purchase a lesser educational product at a higher price than before.

  4. As I understand it, the furloughs being proposed for the CSU amount to a 10% cut in gross pay: 2 days out of 20 working days per month is 10%. This is very frustrating, as our union had negotiated a 20% raise – the first cost of living raise for CSU employees in nearly 20 years – before the financial meltdown.
    It’s hard to know what kind of reduction in work would be a fair response to their tampering with the standing employment agreement, especially since most of the teaching, advising, and administrative work has to get done by somebody, or else the system will grind to a halt. Reductions in the amount of preparation one puts into one’s classes seems like a reasonable response, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to do it, for a variety of reasons.

  5. I think you ought to take it out of teaching time to whatever extent that’s possible.
    Yes, it’s rough on the students. You don’t take the blame for that, though. Suppose a nurse employed at a hospital has his hours cut back to half time. Should he think, “I’d better keep working full time anyway, because otherwise my patients will suffer”? No. The cost to the patients is the responsibility of the employer who reduced his hours.
    If you don’t take it out of teaching time (or much better, committee work!), then you’re taking a pay cut which would be in violation of your contract and collective bargaining agreement(?) if it were straightforwardly imposed on you. That’s what makes this a pretty clear issue, in my eyes. If you actually reduce your work by 10%, by removing the parts that are least beneficial to you, then the furlough is genuinely a furlough, even though it’s still unfortunate and no doubt galling.
    Doug, can you explain how this is working at Arizona State? My understanding is that they do actually identify which days they are not working, and that the furlough days may not be teaching days.

  6. If it were me—and it has been me in the past, although no one is talking furloughs here at the moment—I would not grade, answer student e-mails, or come to campus on my furlough days. So I wouldn’t miss a class section, but I would teach a little less well than usual. I might even drop an assignment from the course, if there were a reasonable one to drop. And I would try to devote a day of discussion to the quandary, if that were at all appropriate to the subject of the course. This is a great topic for showing students how abstract principles can be brought to bear on real-life problems.

  7. If you could get students to agree to it–and they should since they’re being asked to pay more for less–you could organize walk-outs on one or more class days. (And as with what Dale suggests, there could be a “teaching moment” here…)
    The hard question is figuring out to whom the message of a walk-out (or any other action) should be directed. I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.
    OTOH, if everyone is being asked to “tighten their belts” then the thing to do would be to “suck it up” as a sign of solidarity. But I don’t know whether everyone is being asked to do that. (Think: bailouts.) The problem, e.g., with raising tuition and lowering salaries (via furloughs) is that groups get, in a way, pitted against each other: the group who pays more has a reason to expect more (or the same, if the tuition hike is a “standard” one); the group asked to take a pay cut has a reason to do less. Whether it’s fair to do less, however, depends on whether everyone else is being asked to bear a reasonably similar burden. So what reason is there to think this is not the case here? (I’m not saying it isn’t, but what’s the “total situation”?)

  8. We’re currently on furloughs at ASU, although it looks like that may end soon. I’ve chosen to work as much as I otherwise would for less pay (about 10% less). So I’m essentially taking a (hopefully temporary) 10% pay cut. I’m okay with this under the current circumstances, for it seems to me that the alternatives are worse. One alternative was for ASU to lay off more people so as to make up for the budget shortfall. I think it’s preferable that I and others take a ten percent pay cut than that more people lose their jobs.
    Regarding Michael’s two putative problems: First, I doubt that my salary or his reflects anything other than the market value of our work. (I certainly hope that it doesn’t reflect the actual value of the important work that we do.) And let’s face it: the market value of our work has diminished under the current economic circumstances. Second, Michael worries that “working just as much sends a misleading message to students and to the general public: that diminishing resources for public education won’t affect faculty performance and educational quality.” What’s misleading about it? I am willing to work the same amount for less. But, if the market improves and I get a better offer, then I won’t be willing to do so. So the message is that the public can get away with paying me less under the current market conditions but not under better market conditions. I think that’s true. I love my job. I would be willing to work for a lot less than I am making (Don’t tell anyone). I’m just not willing to make a lot less than I’m making when there is someone willing to pay me what I am making or even more.
    The other alternative is for me to work less. If I work less, it seems that I hurt myself as well as others. Publishing less or having worse teaching evaluations only makes me less marketable in the future. Also, students would suffer more, and they’re already suffering from the poor economy, increase class sizes, and tuition hikes. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not enamored with the market system. I’m just explaining what it seems that one ought to do under the current system, which is the one we now operate under.
    Isn’t it odd to suggest that with everyone that is suffering in this economy that we shouldn’t suffer some as well? Of course, you may say that you suffer if you’re paid less for doing less. But I’m not sure that’s much of a burden. A true burden is making less for doing the same amount of work. Given that so many people in this economy are losing their jobs and taking real pay cuts (where they must accept less pay for the same amount of work), it seems that perhaps we should be willing to carry our share of the burden.

  9. Jamie,
    At ASU, you have a choice. You can either voluntarily agree to a temporary pay cut, as I have, or you can identify which furlough days that you’ll be taking — in which case, you may not work on those days (you’re not even allowed to check your ASU email). You are not allowed to take your furlough days on days that you’re teaching. And I assume that you can’t take your furlough days on the days that you need to prepare to teach. You are supposedly able to cut back on your work somehow, and you’re supposed to meet with the head of your unit to discuss how that might appropriately be done. I haven’t met with my head as I took the first option, but, as far as I can tell, the only real way to cut back is either to do less research or do a poorer job teaching. Since our class sizes have already increase, which has in effect reduced the quality of teaching, I can’t bring myself to do less for my students. Graduate students are already suffering quite a bit in this economy, so I would hate to diminish the quality of my seminars and/or thesis supervision. And undergraduates are, I believe, suffering a tuition and/or fee hike as well as larger classes. Also, many of them are suffering financially.

  10. Doug,
    Of course you’re right that salaries reflect market value. I would certainly work for much less money than I’m making now. I don’t think that has the implications you think it has.
    The students are also paying market value. Most of them would surely pay a whole lot more for their education than they are paying. So, to oversimplify a little, there is a cooperative surplus to distribute, and it turns out to be a large one.
    The state bargained on behalf of students and the union bargained on behalf of faculty and they reached an agreement. If the state now in effect cuts Jason Raibley’s salary, they are breaching their agreement If they give him a furlough knowing that it will very likely be in effect a pay cut, then they’re trying to take advantage of him.
    Now, under many circumstances we do have to let others take advantage of us, because the stakes are high and the consequences of refusing to cooperate are dire. I don’t believe that’s the case at CSU.
    The CSU administration might address the faculty: “We ask you to take a pay cut in these difficult times.” I think it might be reasonable for the faculty to agree (I don’t know, because I don’t know all the details). But that is not what’s happened.

  11. Is there no way to set Typepad to display the name of the author of the post? I know I can tell by the category “Posts by Michael Cholbi” but it doesn’t exactly jump out at one. Personally, I’d like to see the author’s name at the top of the posting.

  12. Two thoughts:
    1) If you take the time out of student contact and services (i.e. office hours, answering email, etc). You will be working less and you will generate frustrated students. If you set up a voice mail message or an email auto-reply that says “Sorry I cannot respond to you right now, I am on a mandatory furlough. If you want to prevent this in the future complain to the administration and legislature.” this might turn higher education into more of a squeaky wheel. (Perhaps this extends Doug’s line of reasoning above).
    2) A simple solution: end the semester a few days early. If the semester has 14 weeks, stop after 12.5 weeks and tell students to study hard for finals.

  13. Jamie,
    What implications do you think that I think that it has?
    I don’t know about the CSU situation. I’ll stick to talking about the ASU situation. I know that ASU was either going to lay off more people (they already laid off many) or institute their policy of choosing between furloughs and pay cuts. I don’t know whether ASU’s doing either of these would constitute a breach of contract or taking advantage of anyone. All I know is that I’m glad they chose to cut our pay rather than lay off more people. And it seems to me I ought to go for the pay cut rather than furloughs as this is better for me and others.
    Regarding the display of the author’s name: This has been an ongoing problem. There’s no way to display the author’s name as far as I can tell. We could, though, tell all author’s to display their name in the title. Thus, the titles would be “Title by Author.”

  14. Doug,
    I meant the implication that we ought to be willing to continue working the same amount for less money, is all.
    You say that ASU was either going to lay off more people or institute the policy of choosing between furloughs and pay cuts. Well, maybe instead they could have refused to pay contractors to whom they owed money. I bet that would have saved a bundle. And they could have explained to the contractors that it would be very strange to suggest that in these troubled economic times, contractors shouldn’t suffer too. And come to think of it, I’d be very surprised if ASU doesn’t pay interest and principal on many millions of dollars in bonds – another way to save money would be to stop paying. Bond holders have to suffer too in these trying times.
    (Just to be explicit: my point is that ASU did not even consider those obviously unacceptable alternatives, but is quite willing to try an exactly analogous tactic against its faculty.)

  15. As I see it, the issue is how best to respond to the 10% cut in an ethical way. I would argue faculty have already taken their 10% pay cut. This is because over the last year, the California State University (CSU) did NOT honor the 11% raise negotiated in the contract. So, by that reasoning, faculty will be forced to endure a 10% pay cut on top of the 11% pay cut they already have experienced, resulting in an overall 21% pay cut. As an aside, because this large cut also will lower the base on which retirement benefits are calculated, such a cut also means in all likelihood lower retirement pay leading to life-long negative consequences.
    If the issue is how to respond, here is one thought. The standard basis for pay for most employees is time. So, a 10% reduction in time would be the most reasonable way to enact a furlough for these employees. A 40-hour work week should morph into a 36-hour work week. However, faculty pay is based on the weighted teaching unit (WTU) in the CSU. Each course is worth a certain number of WTUs based on standard formulas. For example, a class that meets three hours per week might be worth 3 WTU. Full time for tenured/tenure track faculty is 12 WTUs per semester with an additional 3 WTUs assumed for committee work, service to the university, department, community, etc. As such, the equivalent furlough reduction for faculty would be in terms of WTU – 1.5 WTU per semester. Over the year, this would translate into teaching one less class.
    However, since CSU faculty have already taken an 11% pay cut over the last year, and have an additional 10% cut looming, maybe the ethical reduction would be 3 WTU per semester, or two fewer classes per year.
    Just a thought – because whatever the reductions are, they need to be roughly equal with the same meaning and consequences across the various university constituencies.

  16. The point about sending a message to the public is interesting, but it’s also a collective action problem. If the faculty got together and decided to take some unified action, then perhaps you’d have an obligation to go along with it. (Perhaps not–that will depend on how they made the decision, what cost it has to you, etc.) But it doesn’t sound like you’re so unified. Instead, it sounds like each of you will be deciding what to do on your own.
    Since people are going to decide what to do on their own, some will cut their teaching, some will cut research, and some will continue working as normal. In light of this last group, people in the first group might not be seen as sending a message. In order to send a message, you probably need to act in a more unified, collective fashion. So, in light of that, you probably won’t be able to send much of a message. Therefore, it’s probably not obligatory to try to send one. It needs to be a collective effort. In the absence of coordination, you probably can’t accomplish much (in terms of message-sending) by having everyone decide on her own what to do.
    That’s not to say you ought to continue working as is, but just that in the absence of coordination it’s not obvious you have an obligation not to do so (in order to send a message).

  17. Thanks to everyone for the interesting discussion. I do tend to side with Jamie’s way of looking at this as opposed to Doug’s, because (1) the CSU did not give us any options (paycut, furlough, layoffs), and (2) a paycut (which is what this amounts to) does violate our contract and the collective bargaining agreements that had been negotiated. I agree with Doug that the market value of our skills has gone down, but that’s something that the administration could legally exploit at the next contract negotiation, not now. I think that Jason Brennan is correct that the prospects for coordination are dim. Consequently, I think that cancelling some assignment or smaller course unit – and using that time to discuss this whole situation with the students – might be the best that can be done. (The teaching load at my CSU is not calculated the way it is at Harley Baker’s, so I don’t think the solution proposed would work for us, though it might be a good solution for some of the other campuses.)

  18. Jason,
    If they violate your contract, then isn’t the appropriate response to sue those who violated your contract? If you do nothing but, say, cut back on the work that you do with respect to your teaching, then you hurt your students without doing much of anything to address the breach of contract issue. But, in any case, Michael said: “The state is legally entitled to impose the furlough.” If that’s right, then I assume that there is no breach of contract. Is Mike wrong?
    By the way, I never said anything that even suggested that I thought that the administration can rightly use your (or anyone else’s) diminished market value as a justification for violating your contract. I was merely addressing this claim of Mike’s: “assuming that my existing salary adequately reflects the value of my work, then it seems unjust to me to do that work while being paid less for it.” The assumption, as I point out, is probably false. Moreover, the implicit principle that it is unjust for someone to work for less pay than their work is worth seems dubious.

  19. It is correct that the state is legally entitled to impose the furlough. The furlough is not technically a violation of the contract. But …
    The terms of the furlough are a 10% reduction in work for a 10% reduction in pay. For some state employees, the furlough would just be what it purports to be: a furlough. But given the nature of our work, it is hard to scale back on any part of it. It would be foolish to cut back on one’s research. It is not really possible to cut back on administrative work. Only with respect to teaching is there any possibility of reducing our work. But cutting back here harms the students, and many instructors won’t want to do that. In addition, it would probably be less rewarding to teach certain classes if one put less into them. Given these realities, the furlough looks a lot in practice like a paycut, which would be a violation of the contract.

  20. Jason,
    It seems to me that in order to justify the claim that, for academics, the furlough amounts to a paycut (and thus violates contracts), more needs to be said about research. You write:

    I find research rewarding and it’s clearly in my professional interests to be a productive scholar.

    Take someone who is just a teacher. Were a furlough imposed on him, it would amount to a paycut (and thus violate his contract) because he cannot meet his professional obligations without continuing to work as hard as before. The decision not to cut research time seems importantly different. You certainly don’t violate any professional obligations by getting less enjoyment from your work and, arguably, at least in many cases, you don’t violate any by not doing what is in your own professional interest. This seems to me to mark the difference between a furlough’s amounting to a paycut and thus breaching contract and its merely being in one’s interest to treat the furlough as though it were a paycut.
    Say you come to believe that you are already being paid less than your research is worth. Would you begin researching less (unless they agreed to pay you more)? Presumably not, as your reasons for doing the amount you do don’t stem (purely) from compensatory concerns.
    So, assuming that my only reasons for not cutting research were ones that did not involve violating professional obligations (and again I leave it open that this may not be the case), I think the attitude I would take in this situation is that, unfortunately, more of the research I do is not research I am being paid for, though it is research it is in my interest to continue doing nevertheless.

  21. There’s another situation that happens here at the CSUs – the unequal balance of starting salaries among tenure track faculty. The Business College begins their faculty a full $20,000 more than faculty in the Humanities. So, as a Humanities faculty member, I will take a paycut (yes, I consider this a paycut) that will drop my take-home pay to just above the poverty level in my area. Since I am single, I have no other secondary income as a fallback. We’re all very concerned about our students and the workload, etc. However, and regardless of fair market economy, we’re not considering that some CSUs are in an area where the salary does not match the cost of living.
    And, another issue: I have personally witnessed other university admins from around the U.S. (from institutions not as bad off as the CSUs and the UCs) openly discussing raiding the UCs and CSUs for faculty. We’re going to see a massive brain drain in California, which is upsetting to say the least.

  22. Kathy,
    Your salary is comparable to other peer institutions outside the CSU System in the Humanities. While the CSU Business School faculty salary is on average 50% less that peer comparative schools. I for one cannot wait to be recruited by wage clearing institutions then I will not have to worry about being furloughed and not receiving raises that were promised. If I am still around when the furloughs take effect then the first thing I will be cutting back on is my service since it is not fungible, then class time. And since as an economist somewhere there must be a equilibrium achieved both in time and wages.

  23. I have a technical point worth considering. A 10% reduction in teaching for tenure track faculty doesn’t really amount to a 10% reduction in workload, since for many such faculty a large portion of their work is in research and service to the university. An easy way to enact a true 10% reduction in workload is to shorten the semester by 10% and to conduct business as usual during the semester. Classes would cover 10% less material unless the faculty decided to cover material 10% faster. I teach in the CSU and currently this is the only form of a faculty furlough that I can see as fair, balanced, and the least disruptive.

  24. Sounds good, Jesse… but…
    How will students taking these 10% shorter courses be graded? If they are graded according to the same standards, and on the basis of the same work, that students taking the full courses would be graded by, then it seems that they will have a diminished chance of earning the grades they would have earned in the other class. So then this does take out the problem on the students.
    Conversely, if they are graded according to a lower standard or on the basis of less work (90% of the expectations, either way), then other problems arise: the students would then be sent along to the next level 90% less prepared, and also the students who took the full course and were graded by that standard can rightfully complain of unfair treatment. And there is also the worry that administrators and other outside observers might feel it is implied that students can be taught to the same level whether they are taught with 14 weeks of class or 12.5 (‘Look, the final grades are practically identical!’).
    What about that?

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