Furloughs in 2010 were “Just Plain Destruction”

The Campus Faculty Association fights for transparency about decision-making processes at the University of Illinois. Unilateral decision-making by the administration undermines the core missions of the university, teaching and research, and so we are working for a faculty union that can provide a strong and independent faculty voice.

The furloughs of Spring 2010 provide an interesting judgment on the administration’s top-down processes. In January 2010, UI President Stanley Ikenberry announced that 11,000 employees of the University of Illinois (but not the civil service employees, who are unionized) would take four furlough days in the spring semester, with administrators taking ten. The alleged reason was a cash flow problem because the state was slow in meeting its fiscal obligations. Yet the university’s financial reports show that it ran a surplus of $321 million (the increase in unrestricted net assets) in the year ending June 2010 – and the millions in furlough money was never used.

Remember that faculty unions at other public universities in Illinois prevented the folly of furloughs from taking place on their campuses.

Now top public university administrators have admitted that the furloughs imposed during the recession were “just plain destruction.”

In a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conference held in September 2012, about how the Great Recession affected university finances, a number of key administrators, including former president Ikenberry, participated in a roundtable discussion. The conference volume published this year summarizes this discussion in its Introduction. The last few sentences are the critical ones, but the whole paragraph is eye-opening.

The roundtable discussion:

“There was some debate about whether the financial crisis and recession should be considered an opportunity for “creative destruction” or just plain destruction. Creative destruction is the idea that, in times of fiscal or other stress, organizations may make hard decisions that ultimately raise their productivity. The discussants agreed that most universities needed some creative destruction of programs that were obsolete, “white elephant” construction projects, some unproductive faculty members, outdated administrative units, frills for students that did not actually improve their college experience, and so on. Discussants were less agreed about whether such creative destruction was practicable. Private university leaders tended to think that it was very difficult owing to tradition, faculty governance, and alumni and donor preferences. However, they usually agreed that some of the reshaping that took place during the recession was actually productive. Public university leaders tended toward the view that destruction was occurring without much of it being productive. They argued that, in responding to the crisis, public universities were even more constrained than private ones. For instance, leaders might be able to see how their staff ought to be restructured and reduced, but they were forced to shrink payroll through furlough days, rather than differentially reducing days more for less productive faculty and staff.” 

In other words, furloughs were just the response of the moment – ultimately a useless and irrational response.  This was poor decision-making, as CFA pointed out vigorously at the time.  And, again, universities where the faculty had union bargaining power did not suffer this. A faculty union with a legally-binding contract can prevent mindless cuts and “pure destruction,” and shed light on the accumulation of huge surpluses in times of alleged constraint.

We need a union for tenure-stream faculty to protect the core academic mission of the university.

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Bruce Rosenstock, President, 2014-15.