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Faculty Furloughs

April 6, 2009

When the first budget cuts were announced at the end of 2008, one of the first proposals to deal with them made by my university’s central administration was faculty and staff furloughs.  The only question was would they be mandatory or voluntary.  Because some of our staff are unionized, mandatory furloughs were quickly off the table.  Consequently, the administration opted for voluntary furloughs.  Some faculty and staff were in favor of furloughs as a way to prevent layoffs, but many others were skeptical.  The skeptics pointed out that furloughs were proposed before the administration had made any effort to reduce operating expenditures or to cut administrative costs.  In fairness, senior administrators and even some coaches “volunteered” to take furloughs.  In the end, voluntary furloughs saved less than $500,000 out of a total budget of about $500,000,000 or 0.1%.   Given the salaries paid to administrators and coaches, you wonder how much of that $500,000 came from their furloughs alone.  What are the pros and cons of furloughs for university faculty?  When are faculty furloughs appropriate? Are there alternatives to furloughs?


Advocates of furloughs point to several features that make them an attractive way to deal with budget cuts.  They seem to be an equitable way to cut the budget with all faculty and staff sacrificing for the good of the institution.  They are even touted as community building — like old-fashioned barn raisings everyone is pulling together for the common good.  Furloughs are also good public relations, especially at state universities.  They receive positive press coverage and members of the legislature and executive branch like to point to the sacrifices being made by state employees when they give interviews or talk to citizens groups about the state’s budget crisis.  For an administrator, they are an easy out because no hard decisions have to be made about which programs will have to be cut back or eliminated.

In reality, most faculty and staff do not favor furloughs because they are, in effect, pay cuts.  This fact is reflected in the small number of faculty and staff who actually sign up for voluntary furloughs.  For faculty, furloughs appear more popular than they really are because, when they are discussed at public meetings, there is rarely much overt opposition to them.  For example, at a college faculty meeting last fall where I work, the idea of furloughs as a way of dealing with budget cuts was proposed by the provost.  A few faculty endorsed the idea, and a subsequent straw poll indicated that most of the faculty present were in favor of them.  The reason for the apparent support for furloughs is obvious, peer pressure.  Most faculty do not want to appear heartless and greedy in front of their peers and their bosses.   Administrators take from such meetings what they want to hear: the faculty and staff are ready and willing to sacrifice for the institution.

The fact that most faculty and staff actually are not willing to make such sacrifices is, in large part, the result of the free-marketization of the American university.  Faculty are now viewed by administrators primarily as revenue generators.  New budget models that distribute revenues to academic units as a function of the amount of tuition generated and indirect cost recovered from research grants exacerbate faculty alienation from the institution.  If faculty are expected to be entrepreneurs, they are increasingly deciding that they want to be the financial beneficiaries of their efforts, not the university.  As in business, faculty increasingly view the institution where they currently work as a stepping stone to an even more lucrative job elsewhere.  This mindset is re-enforced by the ridiculous salary policies of universities.  Not much attention is paid to ensuring that a faculty member has a  salary that reflects their accomplishments until they have a job offer from another institution.  Sacrificing for the common good presupposes that you are part of a community with shared values. Unfortunately, this is increasingly no longer the case at many American universities where it is each man and woman for themselves.

There are other reasons why furloughs are not such a great idea for faculty.  Unlike in industry and even government, furloughs at universities are expected not to inconvenience anyone.  Except under extraordinary circumstance, a university is not going to cancel all classes, meetings, and all other activities while the faculty and staff take a furlough day.  At my institution, faculty could not take a voluntary furlough day on days when they had classes.  In other words, administrators insist on furloughs having no negative consequences. In fact, they fully  expect faculty will come to work on their furlough days. The implication is that faculty can continue to do their current jobs at less pay without it affecting the institution in ANY WAY.  There is thus little incentive to minimize university budget cuts, especially those for public universities.

Furloughs are not a long-term solution to budget problems.  It is now increasingly clear that this year’s budget cuts will become permanent cuts to the base budget.  The increasing size of the cuts also makes furloughs less useful.  When voluntary furloughs were first suggested, my university faced a budget cut of less than four million dollars.  Four months later it faces a cut of over 40 million dollars.   To meet this cut, it has been estimated by the central administration, will require eliminating about 300 faculty and staff positions after all other proposed cost reductions, which include reductions in faculty and staff benefits, have been implemented.

There is another more rarely mentioned or discussed reason why furloughs ultimately hurt faculty more than any other group at a research university.  Today’s research university has many more staff than faculty.  Currently faculty make up only about 20% of the employees at the university where I work.  Other than administrators, the faculty are the best paid employees, and faculty salaries make up about 33% of the overall university budget.  Furlough schemes, whether voluntary or obligatory, typically are graduated with higher paid faculty having to take longer furloughs than more poorly paid staff.  Thus, the money saved on faculty salaries tends to disproportionately punish the most successful faculty and also the ability of the university to deliver its essential teaching and research programs. The implicit message from administrators is that teaching and research are valued less than making sure that purchase orders get processed and that quarterly oil changes get done at the motor pool.  A better strategy for making budget cuts would be to reduce the support and administrative staff in units where they have reached unjustifiable levels.

Mandatory furloughs should only be used as a last resort when an institution has to invoke financial exigency, that is, has to declare bankruptcy, and then only as part of a restructuring plan to bring the institution back into line with its reduced budget.  Voluntary furloughs, as long as they are truly voluntary and there is no  administrative or peer pressure to take them, should only be used when all measures to reduce administrative and operational expenses have been exhausted.  As an alternative to voluntary furloughs, voluntary pay deferrals should be be considered.  Deferred pay could be redeemed after a fixed number of years, over a number of years, or upon retirement.

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