Published online 16 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.700
Updated online: 16 July 2009

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California academics face prospect of unpaid leave

University of California makes furlough plans as state budget cuts continue to bite.

Mark YudofMark Yudof.University of California

Thousands of University of California staff could be forced to take unpaid leave under a furlough plan approved by members of its governing board yesterday.

At a 15 July meeting in San Francisco, a committee of the University of California (UC) Board of Regents granted UC president Mark Yudof the power to enact a plan to help close a US$813-million decrease in state funding this year (see 'Californian universities caught in budget hell'). The full UC Board of Regents is expected to approve the plan today.

The cuts would affect 108,000 full-time UC employees and would follow a sliding scale according to salary, with the lowest-paid faculty drawing 11 unpaid days off — equivalent to a 4% pay cut — and the highest-paid faculty drawing 26 unpaid days, equivalent to a 10% cut.

Projected to save $184.1 million over the year beginning 1 September, the cuts are a response to California's $26-billion state budget deficit. The measures will address only around 25% of the decrease in state funding to the university; the rest of the budget gap will be closed by hikes in student fees, cuts at individual UC campuses and by a debt-restructuring programme.

"The alternative is massive layoffs," Yudof told the regents. "We have frankly just run out of money."

Harsh cuts

The cuts are part of a broader hit to education in the state. The California State University system is also set to vote next week on plans to lay off most of its employees and raise student fees.

Read more about the financial crisis at the Recession Watch special.

During the part of yesterday's meeting that was open to public comment, UC faculty joined students and employees in criticizing the cuts. Protesters also disrupted the meeting, and have ofcalifornia_emplo.html">staged demonstrations over the past week at venues including the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF).

Chancellors of the UC campuses also told the regents that the cuts they have already undertaken are jeopardizing the university's reputation and its ability to generate economic returns for the state. "We have almost always been an A-plus institution, and the cuts we're making threaten that margin of excellence that's made us special," said UC Irvine chancellor Michael Drake.

Michael Bishop, UCSF chancellor, said that his campus — ranked second in the United States for National Institutes of Health funding in 2008 — faces a loss of stature, difficulties recruiting faculty and students, diminished diversity and even risks to the accreditation of professional schools. The UCSF is eliminating 60 non-academic staff and many faculty members, closing health-care clinics and reducing graduate-student enrolment by up to 52% in some departments, Bishop said.

“We have frankly just run out of money.”

Mark Yudof
University of California

"Graduate education has long been a crown jewel of UCSF," Bishop said. "It is a hallmark of great research universities and an important provider of the workforce, and it is shrinking at every UC campus."

The other nine UC chancellors told of similarly dire cuts already implemented on their own campuses, most of which have drastically curtailed faculty recruiting.

Those exempt from the cuts include student employees, such as graduate students, as well as employees whose salaries are paid wholly from research grants and contracts, and staff at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Bleak future?

Scientists at the meeting said that young faculty members will be hit particularly hard by the cuts, and said it is already becoming difficult to retain and recruit them.

"The burgeoning stars of our younger faculty are vulnerable," Bishop said. "Our faculty leadership is literally in anguish over this risk."

“If I go elsewhere, that money follows me.”

Mark Krumholz
UC Santa Cruz

One of those young faculty members, astronomer Mark Krumholz of the UC Santa Cruz, attended the meeting and said that if the cuts continue for longer than a year, he would consider leaving — a move that, if reflected faculty-wide, would cost California money and jobs.

"In one year, I have brought in nine times my salary in grants," Krumholz said. "If I go elsewhere, that money follows me. I have hired one gradate student and a summer student and have plans to hire a postdoc this year. If I wind up moving elsewhere, those jobs will go with me."

Krumholz spearheaded the writing of scientistsprotest.html">a letter that was sent last week to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and members of the state legislature to protest against the cuts. The letter has been signed by more than 300 UC faculty who are members of the US National Academies of Science or Engineering or the Institute of Medicine. Astronomer Sandra Faber of the UC Santa Cruz addressed the regents on behalf of Krumholz and the other signatories to the letter, and warned the regents that continued cuts would lead to serious harm.

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"The university is the most powerful economic engine in the state," Faber said. "Disinvesting in the University of California at this time is like eating our seed corn."

But Yudof said that the pain is likely to continue next year, as $640 million in federal stimulus money dries up. Together with Russell Gould, chairman of the Board of Regents, Yudof has announced plans to form a Commission on the Future of UC to examine the university's continued existence, its services and its funding model.

"I don't really see a light at the end of the tunnel," Yudof said. "What I see is an opportunity to rethink how we do business." 

Updated:

The full UC Board of Regents has "approved":http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/21511 the furlough plan.

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