Students, Faculty Adjusting To Furloughs

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, September 24, 2009
We wanted to take a closer look at the fallout from furloughs, fee hikes and budget cuts at California college campuses. Today, we begin a two-part series called “Learning Curve”. We’ll look at how students and faculty are adjusting…and we’ll start off at Sacramento State.
I went to a place on campus where students congregate: The University Union. Some are deep in books and others are socializing over coffee. The game room is packed with students playing video games, ping-pong…and billiards. Mickey Sisenglanth and two of his friends are in the middle of a game.

“I have a furlough day today and now I’m playing pool.”
Dressed in low-hanging jeans and black t-shirt with a titled ball cap on his head, the 19-year-old would normally be in a Theater Arts class right now. But his professor told students not to come to class. 
“She just said she had something to do, something important. So she took a furlough day off today.”
California State University trustees have ordered all full-time faculty to take 24 unpaid furlough days this year. That amounts to about a 10% pay cut. It’s one way C-S-U is dealing with close to $600 million less in state funding. Sisenglanth (see-SANG-lanth) has mixed emotions about the whole thing.
“They reduced the salaries of the professors. I don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think furlough days make up for that. But, I mean for me, personally I like furlough days because it just gives me more time off, more time to relax.”
He likes furlough days…but Asia Robinson doesn’t.
“Some people will probably be happy – ‘yay, no class’ – but I’m like – ‘uh, I have to pay for this still.’
The 20-year-old nursing student is sitting on a couch in a quieter section of the University Union, with an open laptop computer by her side. 
“I have had a furlough day. It was for my Bio(logy) class. It was kind of weird because we’re only three-weeks in and have already missed a class.”
Robinson says she feels behind in her studies. And although she empathizes with her professors, Robison says the fact that she’s paying 30% more in student fees this year makes the furloughs even harder to handle.  
“I mean I know they have to because they’re getting less money so they have to take some days off. But I think it kind of sucks because we have to pay more money but we’re not in class those days. So I feel like it’s kind of a disadvantage to both of us.”
Alexzander Gaither also feels like he’s at a disadvantage because of the furloughs. Gaither is a trumpet player majoring in jazz studies. The furloughs mean less time in his digital music class.
“…and because there’s so much to do in that class I now have to do a whole bunch of problem solving on my own which can lead me down a path of doing something wrong.”
On furlough days, Gaither says he spends his time practicing trumpet. But he’s worried those non-instructional days could ultimately delay his graduation.
“You know it kind of makes it complicated for me to step out of here with the confidence that ‘okay, I got everything that I wanted and needed to get out of this institution.”
That lack of confidence is hard to hear for faculty like Michael Fitzgerald.
“None of us wants to think that we’re not turning out the best graduates we can.”
Fitzgerald is a journalism professor. He’s been teaching at Sacramento State for 23 years. Like other C-S-U faculty members, Fitzgerald has the option of taking his furloughs either on teaching or non-teaching days.
“I was conflicted about it because the classroom time itself is very precious, it’s the only time I know I really have their attention. So I didn’t know exactly what to do.”
Ultimately, Fitzgerald decided to split his furlough days. He’ll take half on days he would normally be in class teaching students. The other half, on days he usually spends in his office grading papers and attending to university business.
“…and I think that many faculty did the same thing. They said ‘we need to make a point here to the Legislature and particularly the trustees of the California State University that if you’re paying people less, they’re probably going to work a little less.’ And that’s exactly what’s going on right now.”
And how does Fitzgerald spend his furlough days?
“Anything but university work – the things that I normally wouldn’t get a chance to do. See my grandchildren, go do things like that.”
Fitzgerald says that’s the bright spot of furloughs. The downside - having a smaller pay check to spend on those days off – and more importantly, feeling regret that students are paying more but getting less out of their professors this year.