California State University, the nation's largest four-year, public university system, is in trouble. Wednesday, professors authorized a strike over working conditions and pay, and students began a hunger strike demanding a tuition freeze.
The faculty authorization allows for two-day strikes at each of the schools in system, one after the other. A strike date is pending, though, and will only take place if negotiations fail.
This unfolding crisis is the result of massive state cuts in funding that have pushed higher education in California to the breaking point.
Cal State University has 23 campuses and more than 420,000 students. It's one of three public institutions of higher education in the state — the University of California system and community colleges are the other two.
But in the last 10 years, Jarret Lovell says, CSU has hit a wall. Lovell teaches criminal justice at Cal State, Fullerton.
"And in the 10 years that I've been here, I've received a 3 percent raise," he says. "I can't afford a home; I can barely afford to rent."
'We Don't Want To Strike'
After taking a 10 percent cut in pay in 2010 and agreeing to an 18-day furlough, Lovell and his union — the California Faculty Association — are asking for a 1 percent salary increase this year. It's not just about the money, though, Lovell says.
"Classes are getting cut, workload is increasing, class sizes are increasing, and that results in a poorer quality of education," he says, "and yes, some of that has to do with morale."
Lovell voted with a majority of his colleagues to strike.
"We don't want to strike. I don't want to strike," he says.
But faculty members have no choice, Lovell says.
For 22 months, the California Faculty Association and CSU administration have been at an impasse over new terms for evaluating full- and part-time faculty — and at least $214 million in salary increases over three years.
"Impossible," says John Swarbrick, CSU's lead negotiator.
"Our question back to them at the table is: Where does this money come from — not only for this fiscal year but each fiscal year going forward?" he says.
Union leaders say it should be from the same place CSU took money to give campus presidents salary increases while they were raising tuition. Two presidents got a 10 percent increase just this past March, an increase that CSU spokeswoman Claudia Keith defends.
"None of our presidents had gotten an increase since 2007. They all took furloughs like all of our employees. So we've all had to sacrifice — faculty are not alone in that," she says. "Our students have had to sacrifice, they're paying more and probably getting less."
A State Crisis
CSU's budget crisis, of course, is the result of the state's own budget crisis. Lawmakers slashed $750 million from the California State University budget this school year, triggering layoffs, caps on enrollment and a 9 percent increase in tuition.
The state isn't done cutting either. In the next few months, it's likely to cut another $200 million.
"It's a scary future because you don't know what's going to happen," Sean Acselrod says. "If this system crumbles, it's going to become only the rich [who] can go to school."
Acselrod, 22, is a criminal justice major at Cal State Fullerton. He's graduating this month, but like thousands of seniors, he almost didn't because he had such a hard time this semester getting into a course required for graduation.
"When I tried to register for it, I was shocked that I was put No. 2 on a wait list. How can you justify paying money if I can't even get the fundamental classes they tell me I need to graduate from here?" he says. "I would make the argument that you're not getting your money's worth for your education."
Cal State officials say campuses have had no choice but to ration courses, eliminate programs and even turn away eligible students.
"We turned down 25,000 students last year, [they] couldn't get into the California State University because we did not have a spot for them," Keith says. "That's what the public should be in an uproar about — not that [CSU is] being 'unfair' in terms of our collective bargaining agreements."
Faculty members get angry, too, when they hear that their demands are "unfair."
At Cal State, Dominguez Hills, several full- and part-time professors have set up a table near the entrance to the library. They say they have no job security and they're working harder for less money every year. That's why they're striking.
Clare Weber, a union member and chairwoman of the Sociology Department, says the shoddy treatment of faculty ultimately hurts students — especially low-income, first-generation college students who make up the majority on this campus.
"This is their one step into ... decent jobs and a middle-class lifestyle, and they're being denied that," she says.
Cal State, Dominguez Hills' budget is in such bad shape, the school is likely to shut down spring enrollment in 2013. For students, as one professor put it, what was once the "gold standard" of higher education in this country has turned into "fool's gold." It sure feels that way, says 24-year-old Jessica Sharpe, a chemistry major.
"There is kind of a gloomy mood, and you kind of start getting off topic in classes when you're talking about this stuff. I feel like our education is being wasted," she says.
Sharpe says nobody is blameless here — not lawmakers, not taxpayers, not faculty or administrators. Still, both sides will meet yet again Thursday, face-to-face, to see what, if anything, they can agree on.