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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

California Nightmare

I received a tiny raise for the next academic year but at least it is positive. Many of my academic colleagues have salary freezes or small cuts and many public institutions are having unpaid "furloughs" which for professors means the same amount of work for less pay. But nothing compares to how the best state university system in the country is being hit by the California budget crisis. The UC professors are taking salary cuts of 8% or more and are being told their retirement accounts are not fully funded, hiring is being curtailed. In the middle of a new analysis piece today in the New York Times on the California budget:
Classroom sizes are about to explode, and state universities are furloughing professors, cutting class offerings and reassessing, in the case of the University of California, whether the system can remain one of excellence for residents. 
Luca calls it The end of UC Berkeley as we know it and the many other strong campuses in the UC system will not fare well either.

I've seen vultures across disciplines lining up just getting ready to pounce on the best and brightest of the UC system. Just giving a UC faculty member what they previously had is a big advantage. Maybe the University of California can weather the storm, but we could see a drop from excellence. And that hurts all of us.

27 comments:

  1. This is very sad. The UC system has some of the best CS departments in the whole world. That being said I do believe they will bounce back probably in a couple of years. California is just too big an economy and too strong to be permanently set back by all this.

    Also this whole situation would be so avoidable if either:-

    (i) California was allowed to get cheap loans to ride out the rough times - just like the banks. (apparently their constitution forbids it or something).

    (ii) California legislators were able to rise taxes to close the budget gap. Apparently their constitution requires a 2/3 vote before raising any taxes or something like that. This can now be seen as short sighted. Nobody likes a tax increase, just like no one likes to pay more in rent, but in some cases it is just the simplest solution.

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  2. Making it worse: In past years we were able to get raises relatively easily to match outside offers; this year, at least at UCI, no such retention funding is available. So when those vultures line up, as I'm sure they are doing, there isn't much we can do in response.

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  3. Here's to hoping that the many illustrious UC alums (such as Erik Schmidt) will help out.

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  4. From the NYT article discussing the 11 to 26 annual furlough days for UC employees:

    Mr. Yudof said he expected that faculty members would not take furloughs on their teaching days.

    This seems to designed to give the (false) impression that this will be at no cost to students. One of the more disturbing parts of Luca's post was the possible loss of Calgrants. I have not seen anything on it more recently, though.

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  5. This complaining looks disgusting in this tough time and irrational from people who are going to teach our kids.

    Nationwide k-12 schools are taking bigger hits than universities. Even in california the budget hit to k-12 is twice than that of universities. As a parent, and a tax-payer paying for both, our k-12 education was already underfunded. People who get Noble prizes one day were also students in k-12 and get their most essential education there. If they are discouraged in k-12 then nobody would even realize that they were future Einstien or Lance or Luca. A big university like UC Berkeley is crying for a jolt of only $100 M, which looks like only a couple of percentage point, if its entire budget from all sources is taken into account.

    Schools in my neighborhood are taking a much bigger hit. Many excellant teachers and supporting staff have lost their jobs. Those remaining are taking income hit, because they can't bill for overtime. You know the time spent on grading homeworks.

    In comparison, UC Berkeley is not losing anything. As some may think, it may lose its best professors because the university would not match the salaries offered by poachers. Relatively, UC Berkeley's ability have actually increased. Poachers everywhere are taking a bigger hit themselves in their offerings. If in good times they could offer a X raise, in these time poachers could only offer a X/2 raise. So how is university's ability to do the quality teaching and research decreased?

    This is irrational. When I talk to university professors, those who are productive are hating their tenures (or more precisely the tenures of their unproductive colleagues) and those who are not productive loving their tenures. Those who are productive wants incompetent professors to be shown the doors. Indeed that's a kind of insurance tenure provides. You keep your job even if you are incompetent. Like any insurance, it is egalitarian. If you are an insured driver and me too. But if you are a less competent driver and have more accidents than me, then the insurance decreases the financial gap between the cost of driving between you and me. In some cases possibly keeping you on the steering wheel, when you did not deserve to drive. If insurance is cost neutral, well your driving is coming at the expense of mine.

    Same is tenure. Universities salaries are lower than they should be. But that's because professors do value their job security. You had a posting on this in recent past. The irony is that this insurance is not a luck based insurance. It is kind of incompetence insurance. If you are incompetent, you still get to keep your salary. In this way, besides all the benefits of the insurance, a disadvantage is that, the system does not have any tool to cut its dead parts. Guess what, the blood required to run those dead parts come at the expense of the healthier parts, like you and Luca.

    Overall universities are not being asked to bear their fair share of burden of this tough economics time or our past collective mistakes. It may be a good or a bad thing. Definitely the tax payers wants the professors to be thankful and not complaining. What are they going to inspire their students, "complain even if you are getting a better deal than the rest" or "offer help to share the burden of a pain". This pain could be self inflicted if seen in the mirror, but that's a different discussion than this posting, perhaps a far more important discussion so that we can reduce the chance of this happening again.

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  6. In comparison, UC Berkeley is not losing anything. As some may think, it may lose its best professors because the university would not match the salaries offered by poachers. Relatively, UC Berkeley's ability have actually increased. Poachers everywhere are taking a bigger hit themselves in their offerings. If in good times they could offer a X raise, in these time poachers could only offer a X/2 raise. So how is university's ability to do the quality teaching and research decreased?

    Um, logic fail. UC = 8 percent rate cut. Poacher offers X/2 raise. X/2+8 percent of UC salary can equal (or exceed) X. Fact: the UC system is being hit harder than other universities. They are thus at a competitive disadvantage. How big of an impact is, of course, debatable, but your logic seems to be that of an unproductive tenure professor.

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  7. Sorry but I do not agree that the economic crisis has been caused by university professors, nor do I agree that public employees are obligated not to complain.

    There is an obvious solution, though. Fire all the professors and set up a pathbreaking postdoc program. The UC can lead the world by establishing as a standard seven-year postdocs, subject to annual reviews. They could hire twice as many postdocs as they currently have professors, and still cut their budget by nearly 50%.

    An even better solution would be to outsource everything to India, but I don't see how that could work. Maybe establish a satellite campus in India? Include in tuition one round-trip flight?

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  8. Anonymous #5:

    Firstly, Luca clearly mentions that there are more damaging cuts than the UC ones. But the fact that something worse is happening does not mean that this is not also bad.

    One of the real problems that Luca hints at is the totally dysfunctional nature of California politics. There was an article in the Economist a few months ago which outlines the problems more clearly than I could:

    http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13649050

    Also, while it's true that other universities probably can't offer as much of a salary bump these days, they're not compete against a baseline of 0 either - if you offer a salary increase elsewhere versus a decrease where you are now, it's even harder to turn down. Especially since the furloughs are designed to disproportionately hit people at the top of the curve - those most ripe for poaching.

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  9. Oops, my link didn't work, it's:

    http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13649050

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  10. grr, still didn't work.

    try here.

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  11. UC may actually lose a small amount of income because of the furloughs because I think people supported off research grants, whether just over the summer or for the whole year, will also be furloughed, taking away overhead from the university.

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  12. Sure X/2 + 8 > X, but only for X < 16. If 16% was merely enough to poach a Berkeley professor, then he should not be a Berkeley professor to start with.

    Luca salary is a bit over $100K ($106K as the state website reports). He could have easily gotten twice of that by poachers during good time. So X is like 100. Now the same poacher would offer him may be 50% raise. So Berkeley competetiveness in case of Luca has increased.

    Who is at fault of this economic mess up is a broader discussion. The k-12 teachers are not at fault either. We donated money to our kid schools. UC Berkeley should do that, otherwise its own failure to not teach the benefit of charity to students.

    By one standard this $100K salary of Luca is low. It is low in comparison to capitalist salary. The same capitalism which could be blamed for this economic mess is the reason that Luca is getting $100K in the first. Yes $100K is less than $200K as the technologists in Bay area earn. But that $200K gives lower happiness. First, it is not secure so you may not be as worry free as Luca. Second, you have to do what the market demand for those $200K, and Luca can do what he wants, besides doing his basic duties such as training students.

    My own thinking is that professors choose a predictable job, because they want to do unpredictable research. There is no argument given by Luca or Lance, regarding this. Are their salary low enough that they can't have a normal financial life, and continue pursue their passion?

    Lastly, anybody has a right to complain. But then anybody has a right to say disgusting for out of tune complaints.

    When people are losing jobs for none of their faults, they are losing medical care, their kids are losing the quality of essential k-12 education, then that is what to complain. Professors are at least getting a freedom in return. And if they want to get more money, all they have to do is lobby against tenure system, then it will be a purely competition based salary package.

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  13. A discussion about the (high) salaries of the CIfellows is taking place on their website. It has some of the same sentiments issued here, on both sides.

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  14. The California nightmare is that the public sector is being gutted at a much higher rate than most of the private sector. Universities are just one part of this and Luca makes this point quite carefully in his post.

    Anonymous 5 is pitting one part of the public sector against another which is simply the wrong debate.

    Outside of this debate, universities in California have an enviable track record of incubating entire industries. One of the interesting items during the Great Depression is that businesses that focused on retrenching fared worse than those that continued to try to innovate. California is entirely focused on retrenchment.

    There is a fundamental economic fallacy that the "don't raise taxes in economic hard times" fails to take into account: Economics is NOT a zero-sum game. In conservative times the money taken in through the tax system creates economic activity because it is not squirreled away in bank accounts. It also provides services and a social good.

    In hard times the brakes that taxes put on specific economic activity are actually less than they are in good times because in good times there are many opportunities to avoid taxes by doing something else with one's money.

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  15. The point is not complaining or saying who is worse off. Certainly there are worse things to be than a university professor..

    The point here is that the UC system is an amazing achievement, a public system of world-class quality. There is a bound to the amount of cuts the system can take and retain its quality, even if the individual professors will be fine.

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  16. I have no doubt that things seem worse than they really are. What is being required of the professors is a trivial step back and nothing that should require sympathy.

    Whimpering is not a good sign of sanity. And fear is a sure way to fail. Learn what courage is all about.

    Stiff uppper mandible!

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  17. Mason, you also miss the point of this post. It's not about sympathy for the individual professors (I may not be happy about having my pay cut by $10,000 or so, but I'll survive, and certainly there's no reason to be sympathetic for the ones who get better jobs elsewhere). It's about whether the state of California will continue to have any world-class public universities after the good faculty get poached and the remaining ones are stretched even thinner due to not being able to hire replacements for the escapees.

    There's some cause for optimism, even given the long-term structural problems with California's finances: If the direct state funding to the UC system keeps shrinking (currently it's in the 20-30% range) and the tuition and fees paid by the students keep growing, eventually we'll wake up and discover that we're a private university. But it will be painful and damaging to the system to get to that situation.

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  18. " ... and the remaining ones are stretched even thinner due to not being able to hire replacements for the escapees."

    Why would you not be able to hire? There are tons of unemployed CS people?

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  19. We can't hire because (1) there's a hiring freeze on, but more importantly (2) the university keeps passing its cuts down to the various schools' permanent budgets, and after all the previous cuts the remaining permanent budget items are almost entirely faculty salaries, so the only way to account for all the cuts is to give back whatever open positions we may still have.

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  20. Does the hiring freeze apply also to postdocs, adjuncts, and non-faculty employees?

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  21. It doesn't apply to postdocs or graduate students (when a student becomes a research assistant or a teaching assistant, that's a hiring decision, and that's still happening). But all other positions, faculty or staff, are frozen.

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  22. The UC system should get some CI fellows. That will help them with their teaching load.

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  23. I find it hard to believe that faculty would be so eager to leave (or be lured by "poachers") given such a small pay cut. Most professors and professors-to-be that I know seem to have one thing in common: money is the last thing on their mind. Lets face it, becoming an academic is not a fiscally sound decision to begin with, and is mostly a lifestyle choice (and so worth it!). Moreover, once you've lived as a grad student, everything else is an upgrade.

    That being said, I can understand that this argument would not apply to a professor with a large family such that the pay cut would actually affect their ability to provide for their children, but this seems unlikely.

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  24. I find it hard to believe that faculty would be so eager to leave (or be lured by "poachers") given such a small pay cut. Most professors and professors-to-be that I know seem to have one thing in common: money is the last thing on their mind. Lets face it, becoming an academic is not a fiscally sound decision to begin with, and is mostly a lifestyle choice (and so worth it!). Moreover, once you've lived as a grad student, everything else is an upgrade.

    I agree that very few professors would move over just an 8% pay cut. But the UC budget was already stretched thin enough that many professors that the salaries were lower to begin with. Also the budget tightening has all kinds of other effects. Like walking into classrooms and not finding chalk. Or trying to wash your hands in a bathroom with water pressure so low it's hard to get your hands wet. It's also not like we're talking moving into industry. If you don't have some reason to avoiding moving like school aged children, why wouldn't you be interested when MIT offers you more money and none of those hassles? Most academics are used to moving around.

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  25. I got to the discussion late, but it is infuriating that some of the comments miss so much the point.

    1. The idea that other universities also will have less to offer. Places like the Ivy League Universities, University of Chicago, Rice, Northwestern, etc have huge endowments. Yes, they took enormous hits--but they could, like the Federal Government, do large deficit spending to invest in their academic future. Different players have different strategies, so the whole analysis is wrong.

    2. Excellence is elusive. A one-year hit is survivable, but the phenomena are nonlinear. Once faculty decide that the UC system cannot be trusted -- for example that their retirement is not secure -- they will start looking elsewhere as a matter of course. If there were a mass exodus, it would take decades, not years to repair the damage.

    3. In some states there is a tradition of truly excellent public universities. They used to be affordable by all residents. There are good public policy reasons to maintain this state of affairs. Yes, the argument applies even more to pre-university instruction.

    4. The diatribe against tenure totally misses the point. Assuming it to be true, this would only increase the damage of cuts -- the employable would leave, and the incompetent would stay.

    5. There was no discussion of fields outside CS. One of the reasons why many of the UC campuses are superb is because most departments -- not only CS -- are great. While it is true that no university will be great without at least a good CS department, it is also true, that most great CS departments are at Universities where other departments are also great.

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  26. it is also true, that most great CS departments are at Universities where other departments are also great.

    CMU perhaps being the exception. Top CS department, but not terribly distinguished outside of computation-heavy areas.

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