Monday, February 22, 2010

The Case of the Invisible Furlough

Even a dead dog has a pretty good sniffer, but I gotta tell you my sharp nose is having a hard time detecting the faintest whiff of action at Queer the Turtle U around the issue of furloughs. Regular and local readers will recall that QTU was on the leading edge of the furlough wave, enduring its first round of temporary pay cuts in the spring 2009 semester. A second round is happening right now, and a third is likely, since Maryland Gov. Martin “You, Sir, Are No Jack Kennedy” O’Malley calls for furloughs for state employees in his proposed 2011 budget.

Oh, sure, QTU has gotten in on the resurgence of campus activism that has occurred this academic year, as devastating budget cuts and fee increases in the University of California system got national attention in the fall, sparking actions there and elsewhere. In College Park, the ineptly handled firing of the associate provost for equity and diversity brought 600 protesters to the steps of QTU’s main administration building in November. A misguided proposal to consolidate a number of diversity-focused academic programs into a single unit was the catalyst for a well-attended town hall meeting in December in which faculty, mostly from the arts and humanities, stood up to argue that diluting the identities and intellectual coherence of such programs would not be worth whatever (minimal) cost savings might result from lumping them together. (That proposal has now been officially deep-sixed.) There has even been some movement on the possibility of unionizing grad student employees and adjunct faculty.

Meanwhile, what are we hearing from faculty and staff about furloughs, about “temporary” salary reductions that are beginning to feel like a permanent fact of life in College Park? (Please click on the button below. That sound file contains one of the few jokes in this long, uncharacteristically serious post. We want you to get at least one good chuckle out of your visit to Roxie's World today.)

It’s true! Aside from a town hall meeting organized by the administration to discuss the budget situation in the fall, there has been no public, organized response – No protests, no teach-ins, no angst-ridden debates about what one should actually do on furlough days, no blood-curdling cries of, “2, 4, 6, 8, if we work, we should get paid!”

What’s up with that? you might be wondering (or we might be projecting again). Why has the Turtle crawled into its shell for a nap at a moment of crisis? Good grief, you’re thinking, with two QTU profs in the household, Roxie’s World has lost thousands of dollars in income in the past year. Why aren’t you ornery bitches raging in the streets?

I will tell you why, my close, patient readers of rhetorical questions. It’s because, at QTU, furloughs this year have been made almost entirely invisible, even to those whose pockets are being picked by them. Invisibility, of course, greatly reduces the likelihood of John and Jane Q. Public getting incensed about getting less than they paid for when they dropped their Tiny Turtles off in College Park in the fall to get educated. It also gives the tenured and untenured radicals on the faculty far less incentive to make a stink. Out of sight, out of mind is a recipe for quiescence, a tasteless Turtle Soup of political unconsciousness, at least on the matter of furloughs.

Here, in our judgment, is how it happened. This year’s furlough plan was announced on September 19 and took effect on September 27. Eligible employees have from two to ten furlough days, based on their rate of compensation. (Employees earning less than $30,000 had two days, for example, while those earning more than $200,000 had ten.) (Snarky aside: Don’t you love that term “eligible employees,” as if we were talking about some contest with a super-cool prize? Enter now for your chance to win in the Excellence Without Money Sweepstakes!) Anyway, this time around the “temporary” pay reduction is being taken out in equal amounts over 17 pay periods between September and May. Further, the university opted to close for four days and make those furlough days for everybody. The closure days are December 23-24 and March 17-18, which happens to be in the middle of spring break. Employees with more than four furlough days (i.e., anyone earning more than $70,000) must schedule additional days, with supervisory approval. For faculty, the additional days are to be taken on non-instructional days.

Now, one could argue that this plan is more efficient from a bureaucratic perspective and more humane from a financial perspective. In closing for four days when the campus is pretty much a ghost town anyway, the plan greatly simplifies the timekeeping aspects of the process. In spreading the reductions out evenly over the course of the academic year, it distributes the pain for employees and spares them from having to make difficult decisions on a biweekly basis. Let’s see, you can imagine the department secretary saying to herself, should I take a furlough day during this pay period, when the rent is due, or should I wait until the next one, when I only have to pay the gas bill? (That’s how things worked last spring.) Making the pay reductions even, automatic, and predictable alleviates much of the anxiety of the situation for affected employees.

Intended or not, however, one other consequence of this more or less automatic procedure is, as we have been suggesting, to make the furloughs largely invisible. By reducing employees’ anxiety and limiting the number of active choices they have to make with regard to planning and reporting, the plan helps to make tolerable what arguably ought to be intolerable: the idea of working harder and earning less. (For faculty in particular, this is obviously what is happening. No one has suggested that the cut in pay will be accompanied by a reduction in the expectations for research and service, the non-instructional parts of faculty workload.) In this manner, the QTU furlough plan contributes insidiously to what the University of Illinois’ Lauren Goodlad has brilliantly termed “furloughisme,” a logic or mentality of crisis management that has taken hold in higher education in recent years in which drastic measures, imposed from on high and often without administrative transparency, become the normal way of doing business. Hey, if you can mandate one or two rounds of “temporary” pay cuts and no one makes a peep, why not go for a third or a fourth? Why not increase class sizes by a body or five? Why not require faculty to walk over hot coals on their way to a meeting devoted to Learning Outcomes Assessment? (Oh, wait – We’ve been doing that for years, or at least it feels that way.)

We are not accusing the QTU administration of bad faith or of having engineered a plot to minimize protest or even public discussion of the impact of furloughs and other budget-cutting measures. Well, OK, we might be implying a little bit of the latter, but we have been impressed with how sensitively QTU Prez Dan Mote has responded to calls for greater transparency on budget matters. (We will be among those who will sincerely mourn when Dan steps down as president at the end of this year, but that will be the subject of another post.) Colleges and universities have a powerful interest in not calling attention to such impacts, though we have long felt the commitment to institutional happy talk made it harder to make the case for increased levels of public support for higher ed.

We are also not accusing faculty of being negligent or apathetic in not offering greater resistance or critique in response to the measures that have been taken. The simple fact is that the situation in College Park is not as dire as it is in places like Berkeley and Urbana-Champaign. There is concern here but not the kind of justifiable rage and terror that develops in response to the catastrophic failures in leadership those institutions have experienced or to news that a state is nearly half a billion dollars behind on its payments to the university for the year.

Nonetheless, we think there is a danger in allowing furloughs and other kinds of cuts to become invisible, whatever the structural impediments may be to our seeing them and publicly acknowledging them. Silence allows the public to think that the cuts don’t matter. It encourages the reflexive belief that faculty are underworked and overpaid, that universities are bastions of privilege or cesspools of wasted public funds. It also increases the risk that “furloughisme” will become a part of our way of thinking about who we are and what we do. If we don’t break the silence, if we don't insist on bringing furloughs out of obscurity and into visibility and articulacy, we tacitly agree to the devaluation of our labor. If we silently soldier on, tolerating what ought to intolerable, we run the risk of becoming, not fearsome Turtles, but those pathetic if apocryphal frogs who were slowly boiled alive in a pot of gradually heating water.

March 4 has been designated a day of action in support of public education. Again, the call comes from California, but it is being heard throughout the country. The rabble-rousers of Shampoo-Banana have opted to take a collective furlough day on that day and follow up a recent teach-in with a march and a panel on the future of the university, according to what we’re picking up on Facebook and from sources on the ground. Meanwhile, QTU students are mobilizing for something, though details aren’t yet clear. Roxie’s World commends the students for taking the lead and urges faculty to support and participate in this effort in whatever way feels possible or appropriate. I don’t know about you guys, but this water is starting to feel awfully warm to me. Peace out.


  1. Rox, you nailed it -- we have been far too quiescent. We need to educate ourselves and the public about just how grave the cost to the collective good has been. March 4th is not far away, but we've got time to do something. Our ever-savvy, brilliant students are already organizing. We must join them and make March 4 a Save Education Day in College Park.

    --The many-day furloughed Goose

  2. This post was superb~ I agree a billion percent with all of it.

    As for the protest, the details are coming into focus:!/event.php?eid=323803476466&ref=ts

    I'll be sending an email with more details to the venerable estate of Moose and Goose.

  3. Awesome, Kenton. Turtles Unite!


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