Thursday, July 09, 2009

ethics and the CSU budget crisis

The CSU administration and Board of Trustees come up pretty often as examples in my Professional Ethics course. Their ways of handling the CSU budget, personnel issues, and policies affecting students raise ethical questions. For example, the CSU administration's usual bargaining strategy is to say that whatever the faculty want - increased pay, job protections for lecturers - is entirely impossible. We spent 2 years bargaining our last contract, with our first raises in years (which we've stopped receiving as of last year). We settled mainly because the faculty voted to strike, and at about the same time, the CSU administration was publicly embarrassed by the revelation that they had a $2 billion reserve fund, while claiming they had no money to pay for faculty raises. This kind of thing raises some ethical questions for my students.

My students ask how ethical it is that the CSU administration and Board of Trustees continues to make them pay larger fees, while making it harder to get a good quality education. They ask how ethical it is for the administration to cut faculty and staff, raise student fees, and seemingly suffer less than anyone else. They ask why each of the campus presidents receives a housing allowance equal to my gross salary.

I tend to evade these questions. I don't think a Professional Ethics course should be focused on making moral judgments of people, and the tone of the questions always seems judgmental. I understand why my students would be upset to hear about the ways the CSU administration has handled budgeting of the university, even in relatively good budget years. I'm just not convinced we achieve very much by calling particular administrators unethical.

It's a different story this year, too. The budget problems are enormous. So, if I'm lucky enough to have a job teaching Professional Ethics this year, I think the questions will be focused differently:

What exactly are the ethical implications of having to make massive cuts to the budget, lay off hundreds of employees, turn away thousands of students, and essentially abandon the mission of the CSU? How to go about doing good in such circumstances? How to go about assessing the actions people take?

I'm going to set aside what I think is the obvious case of the Chancellor's Office refusing to offer any substantive details of the furlough proposal to address faculty concerns about its feasibility, or its beneficial effect in reducing layoffs, class cancellations, and other havoc. The CO routinely ignores calls for open discussion or cooperation. Instead, I want to ask, what would be a good way for the CO to handle cutting the budget, and why?

I have two basic impulses for framing this. One is to identify whose good we should be concerned with, and the other is to identify what kind of good we're talking about.

As a starting point, I'm gonna assume that doing good involves doing what one can not to cause avoidable harm to others. This is a fairly uncontroversial utilitarian position (I've stolen the phrasing from Gene James). I think we can also prioritize which others we want to avoid harming, by saying the most innocent should be spared the most harm. Innocent here means being most susceptible or vulnerable, having the least choice about the situation, and/or being to a reasonable degree ignorant of the causes and effects of the situation. In this case, that points to students - students, not taxpayers. This leads to an initial question: how do you handle a $583 million cut (on top of last year's $300 million cut), while avoiding harm to students?

Now, what kind of good is higher education? The 1960 Master Plan for education in California suggests that education is a public good. Well educated citizens make valuable and productive employees in information-based economies. The individual students who go to the CSU and get degrees benefit economically from that opportunity, but beyond that, their contributions to the economy of the state benefit everyone else as well.

I don't hear much in the current discussion that suggests these are central concerns. The bottom line appears to be the bottom line. Thus, it seems reasonable to the Board of Trustees, to many in the legislature, to the governor, to the chancellor, to add yet another student fee increase. Education is in the students' interest to pursue, so they should pay for it, is how the fantastically simplistic argument goes. Meanwhile, cutting employees' hours (or, effectively, their pay - since it is hard to see how faculty workload would genuinely be reduced) denies students a portion of the education that they are going to be paying more for. Add to that the havoc and disruption that would follow from current proposals to cut programs, merge departments, or possibly shut down entire campuses.

I'm not saying the state should absolutely not cut the CSU budget. Given the times, I would only be asking for someone else to suffer more. But the proposals floating now seem to cause a lot of avoidable harm to students, and to deny the public good served by education.

What other solutions are there? I don't have one in hand. For one thing, I'm not privy to the real budgets of the CSU's 23 campuses - no one is. So I don't know whether every resource is being used effectively. How much money could be diverted into educational programs if we suspend extremely expensive (and not well regarded) programs for outcomes assessment? Or halted expansion of degree programs, particularly graduate degrees? And could this be the moment to reconsider the top-heavy growth of management (expanding over the last 10 years at 15 times the pace of faculty)? Or to reconsider the fact that on most CSU campuses, only about half the budget goes toward instruction?

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