California Community College system budget officers are at odds with faculty members and their union over what is usually a cause for celebration -- an increase in state funding.
Faculty members are in favor of a budget proposal by the state Legislature that includes $170 million for the hiring of 2,000 full-time faculty members, which would make the system less reliant on adjunct instructors. But the system’s number crunchers are wary about the long-term implications of such a funding decision. They believe setting aside such a large sum specifically for faculty hiring is financially risky in the aftermath of steep enrollment drops during the pandemic, CalMatters reported.
“Excessive hiring in a declining enrollment environment can lead to painful budget reductions, layoffs, furloughs,” wrote Aaron Brown, president-elect of the Association of Chief Business Officials, in a letter to policy makers about funding and hiring concerns. The association represents California Community College system financial officers.
Community colleges across the country experienced enrollment decreases of 10 percent on average last fall, and the California Community College system particularly suffered. The system’s enrollment plunged 12 percent in fall 2020 compared to the previous year, a loss of 186,688 students. These widespread declines have forced community college leaders, in California and beyond, to ask themselves how best to nurse their institutions’ financial wounds and whether it’s time to revive pre-pandemic goals like building up the professoriate or if they should spend carefully in an uncertain post-pandemic future.
California Community College system financial officers support the proposed funding increase, but they fear allocating all the money to faculty hiring will tie up money needed for other priorities, said Daniel Troy, assistant superintendent of administrative services at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo and a member of the association.
“The risk is that if you’re overextended on your staffing relative to your enrollment is that your expenditures are mismatched with your students’ needs,” he said. “If we have more faculty than we need, we may be in a position of having to reduce financial aid assistance or IT support, and those are also important things that students need to complete their programs. So we just want to make sure our budgets have enough flexibility that we can serve all the local needs of the districts.”
That framing of the issue doesn’t sit well with some faculty members. They point to the system’s long-standing goal to have full-time faculty members teach 75 percent of classes. Just 59 percent of classes are currently taught by full-time professors. Faculty members argue the formula used by the chancellor’s office to determine the number of full-time faculty members needed at each college fails to achieve that ratio. They welcome the additional funding. Budget officers, on the other hand, want the formula to remain flexible so campuses don’t hire more people than they need.
The $170 million is the most funding state policy makers have proposed to increase full-time faculty in the system for at least a decade, said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, the system’s faculty union. He views the funding as an opportunity to hire current adjunct instructors on a full-time basis.
“I get a little disappointed in the argument that the fiscal officers make, that if we do this, we’re going to be spending additional money on faculty and therefore that will be less money for all of the other important things our colleges do,” he said. “The most important thing our colleges do is teach students. Of course, it’s faculty that are doing that. So that should be the priority.”
More full-time faculty members would ultimately be better for students, added Eric Kaljumägi, president of the Community College Association, the higher education affiliate of the California Teachers Association.
“Part-time faculty often struggle to give students attention outside of class and to maintain their professional development since they have to respond to multiple employers and frequently have to commute mid-day from one job to another,” Kaljumägi said in an email. “While it's not surprising that college administrators would like completely unrestricted dollars, California must address the ongoing problem of balancing a college's books by paying the majority of its faculty poorly and on one semester contracts."
Nationally, about 40 percent of adjunct faculty members struggle to cover basic household expenses, and nearly 25 percent need public assistance, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers.
Troy said budget officers support increasing the number of full-time faculty -- they just believe now is the wrong time to make such a commitment.
“It just feels that there is so much uncertainty out there right now that we need to be careful in what guarantees we make going forward in terms of staffing levels, because I don’t think we know what the new normal is,” he said.
Other public higher education systems are similarly wrestling with questions about pursuing long-held goals for hiring faculty members. Unlike the budget officers in California, leaders of the North Carolina Community College System are worried about recruiting and retaining faculty members, not hiring too many. North Carolina boasts the third-largest community college system in the country, but the state’s faculty salaries are among the lowest, ranked 41st in the country, said Thomas Stith, president of the North Carolina Community College System. Campus administrators tell him they’re losing instructors to higher-paying jobs in their fields or at colleges in other states because of the low salaries paid by the North Carolina system.
System administrators asked the North Carolina Legislature for an additional $60 million annually to increase the pay of all faculty and staff members by 5 percent. Stith believes it’s a worthwhile investment, even with a 7 percent enrollment drop across the system last year.
The current salaries are “unacceptable,” Stith said. “We’re seeing it have the potential to impact our ability to provide a world-class education experience to our students.”
Stith noted that the economic downturn caused by the pandemic exacerbated financial strains faculty members were already experiencing, which prompted college administrators to renew efforts to increase salaries to retain existing faculty members and hire new ones.
“I think the COVID crisis has only heightened the need and amplified the discussion,” he said.
Much like in California, the union representing faculty and staff members in the City University of New York system, the Professional Staff Congress, is calling for an increase in the number of full-time professors across the system -- 5,000 hires over the next five years. The CUNY system laid off 2,800 adjunct instructors last summer, which prompted a lawsuit by the union. CUNY administrators said the dismissals were necessary after hefty cuts to the system's budget related to the pandemic.
The union's goal is to have at least 45 full-time faculty members, up from 33, per 1,000 full-time students. James Davis, president of the union, estimates that achieving that ratio for the system's community colleges would cost about $184 million.
He said the amount might seem like a huge ask, but $170 million or more is the equivalent of a "rounding error" in the grand scheme of state higher education budgets for states such as New York and California. He sympathizes with concerns about lost enrollment but suggested that federal COVID-19 relief funds could help cover financial shortfalls. He believes now is an opportune moment to increase the number of full-time faculty members at community colleges.
“Enrollments are going to rebound,” he said, and when they do, college leaders will want a robust full-time faculty in place. Otherwise, “you're preventing students from having access to faculty who are going to stick with them through their undergraduate career, who will be able to mentor them year to year, and who won't be stretched by having to dash off to another college or another class … and, frankly, who can pay their bills.”