Faculty strike at Cal State East Bay shuts campus, frustrates some students, buoys others
San Jose Mercury News

By Lisa M. Krieger

Classrooms were empty at Cal State East Bay on Thursday, as hundreds of faculty members rallied over a pay dispute, budget cuts and frustration over university leadership.

Marching and holding signs that read “Fewer Classes, Higher Fees, CSU Is Run By Thieves,” the California Faculty Association led a peaceful protest, triggering none of the violent police confrontations seen in recent rallies at University of California campuses.

The Hayward-based faculty were joined by professors and students from San Jose State University and 10 other CSU campuses. The East Bay location for the faculty strike — the first ever at CSU — was selected because of the school’s large population of working class students and students of color, who are most hurt by reduced funding, said CFA president Lillian Taiz.

While school entrances were raucous, and closed to cars, the campus was eerily silent. Even facilities not related to the strike — such as practice rooms in the music department — were locked. About 560 classes were canceled; one of the few open classes, a Spanish lesson, had only three students.

“This is democracy,” said student Mustafa Aria, 27, of Kabul, Afghanistan. “Democracy is not just about voting — you need to have civil disobedience to put pressure on decision makers that are favorable to you. If you are not involved in it, you’ll not make anything out of it.”

But the strike didn’t mean there wasn’t schoolwork to do. In the busy library, students gathered to complete assignments — many delivered online by absent professors, such as math problems or required reading. Aria’s anthropology professor assigned essay questions in response to Thursday night’s lecture by visiting professor Cornel West of Princeton University, on campus to support the strike.

Pay impasse

The specific complaint is an impasse over a 2008-2010 faculty contract. Full-time faculty, who earn an average of $79,000, were promised a 5 percent raise, as well as money to bring pay parity to professors with more experience. This would cost an estimated $20 million the first year.

The larger frustration, however, is over budget-related class cutbacks and rising student fees, including a 9 percent increase approved by CSU trustees on Wednesday. That hike comes on top of eight previous fee increases that have boosted tuition by almost 30 percent — to $5,472 — since the start of the 2010-2011 academic year.

There is also residual anger over the hiring of San Diego State president Elliot Hirshman last summer at a salary of $400,000 – $350,000 in state funds and $50,000 from the school’s fundraising foundation — as well as a $1,000 monthly car allowance and free housing. Hirshman’s predecessor was paid about $300,000 a year.

“They should cut from the top, not the bottom. Classes and faculty are always the first to be cut,” said philosophy professor Jennifer Eagan.

But CSU Chancellor Charles Reed said there’s not enough money to deliver the promised raise. “It’s not there. If we pay that $20 million, the only way we could is to take it from students – divert it from classes and sections,” Reed said to reporters on a Monday conference call.

Watching from Washington D.C., Jane Wellman, of the nonprofit Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, said, “These are tough times for higher education. The reality is that there is just not enough money to meet all the demands. It is a function of what happened with public revenues.

“Nothing is sacred in this environment,” she said. “But cutting the chancellor’s office will not solve money problems of this magnitude. No way.”

And as state support falls, another part of the budget – employee benefits, especially health care costs — keep climbing, she said.

“In California, the benefit structure is part of the problem. Health care, specifically, is the culprit,” she said. “You are not able to give pay increases unless you can get benefit costs reduced.”

Out of options

Some students were annoyed by the protest, saying that closed entrances made it tough for them to get their work done. “I wasn’t able to enter the campus, which was really frustrating,” said Rebecca Brutzman, 22, of San Leandro, who went to the library for the day to prepare a PowerPoint demonstration for a class.

“The picket line prevented cars from driving through,” she said. “I encourage them to strike. However, it interferes with my education, which is a whole separate issue. Students should be a priority, and we aren’t able to participate in our education.”

But others said they could empathize with faculty anger. “I appreciate what they’re doing,” said Alex Attard, 20, of Danville, holding a saxophone while locked out of the practice rooms. “That’s what they have the right to do. Our tuition is going up, and we’re denied stuff. Meanwhile, they’re not getting the pay they deserve.”

Growing faculty militancy comes as no surprise to Richard Vedder, of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “It is unusual for an administration to renege on a contract,” he said. “On the other hand, I can understand the frustrations of Reed, who is facing budget shortfalls of a perhaps unprecedented size. There are only so many dollars to go around.

“In the short term, this may lead to modest relief for them. But I doubt it will lead to much, in the longer run,” Vedder added. “You can’t take blood out of a turnip. There is only so much there.

“Long term, to keep in business, we have to change the model,” he said. “All of our options are closing.”