Despite multiple financial and logistical challenges related to the pandemic, Fresno State has managed to remain fairly stable. In fact, Fresno State expects the largest incoming class in the university’s history.
But there are growing concerns that there is not enough faculty or staff to meet the increasing student body. And some view the university’s hesitancy to tap into the $1.5 billion in the California State University reserves as a controversial business model of attempting to do “more with less.”
“If there was ever time to use those funds it’s now…We need to look at where the money is going. It just doesn’t make sense,” Dr. John Beynon, a Fresno State English Professor and the Fresno State Faculty Chapter Union President, said.
Faculty and Staff Bear the Burden
Chairperson for the Joint Labor Council at Fresno State, Shirley Staton, spoke on the increasing workloads for staff. According to Staton, it isn’t the first time the CSU has used this strategy.
“Yes, unfortunately we have been asked to do more with less, especially in compensation, and this is not new. This has been going on for many, many years. Currently some staff are covering two departments or doing the work of two people.”
Staton believes part of the issue lies in a “top-heavy” administration, with an “abundance” of administrators, directors and managers on payroll.
With that being said, Fresno state reported the elimination of 18 managerial positions and said it is doing its best to keep as many staff positions as possible and minimize layoffs. Staton hopes it will continue to consider top-down eliminations before staff positions are cut.
But faculty are still concerned about the increasing workloads.
“Sadly, this is a moment for management to take advantage of the situation,” Beynon said in regard to Fresno State’s business strategy.
Beynon has been president of the chapter union since April of this year. Unsurprisingly, the past five months have been hectic to say the least.
According to Beynon, contracts between faculty and administration are decided at a bargaining table. Some of these agreed upon bargaining points include caps on class sizes to reduce workloads on professors. But recently those limits have been ignored.
“Workloads have increased. Class sizes have increased, sometimes in violation of contract,” Beynon remarked.
This of course makes it more difficult for professors to serve students equally and adds extra stress to faculty, who in some cases already have their plates full with involvement in multiple committees.
Higher Workloads for Faculty of Color
The increase in workload affects faculty all around, but the unequal student-to-faculty ratio is especially evident in faculty who are people of color (POC).
Fresno State is a diverse higher education institution with a high population of POC students. Many of these students are naturally drawn to faculty of color and tend to view them as alternative support systems or mentors.
But because faculty at Fresno State are mostly White, there aren’t enough faculty of color to go around and they end up serving a disproportionate amount of students compared to their White co-workers.
Cecil Canton of the California Faculty Association (CFA) calls this phenomenon “cultural taxation,” or the unique burden that faculty of color have to bear in order to fit into and survive within the American higher education system.
William Arce, English Professor at Fresno State, has experienced this unequal workload first-hand. Students have turned to Arce for support multiple times and he recognizes the pressure that faculty and POC faculty are under at the moment.
“The incoming classes are highly diverse and enrollment has increased. But we don’t have more faculty being hired to meet the incoming volume of students. So to serve those students faculty need to do more work.”
Arce acts as the advisor for the Students for Quality Education, Treasurer of the CFA Chapter, mentor for the MENtorship Program and as an English professor for students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. But despite his very busy schedule, he still makes an effort to serve all the students who turn to him for support in hopes of preventing them from falling through the cracks.
“You can’t say no to their commitment to their education,” Arce explained.
Student Leadership Critical of Fresno State
“I have not been comfortable with the steps that Fresno State and the campus are taking to protect their students,” Beth Contreras said, 18, incoming sophomore at Fresno State.
Contreras is an intern for the CFA and is currently training to organize students so they can receive a quality education by pushing for change such as affordable classes and more student equity.
She believes the issues that faculty and students are facing right now is a result of misplaced fund allocation. In other words, Fresno State is spending money in the wrong places.
“It’s going to infrastructure and administrative pay, redoing the parking lot and the new student union building,” she explained.
According to her, these are resources that do not immediately benefit students.
As discussed in our previous coverage of this issue, Fresno State is implementing a repopulation plan. But Fresno State is currently at the beginning of that repopulation plan with most students currently learning remotely and therefore less able to access resources that are normally found on campus.
Contreras said money could be better spent by reducing student tuition and creating more online resources for students:
“We’re not seeing online resources given to us anymore which is really hard because we don’t have on-campus resources anymore. And we’re still being told to pay the same amount of money for less.”
According to Contreras, students have faced long lines at the bookstore and financial aid office, have struggled to receive hot spots from the library, and experienced issues with accessing health services such as mental wellness support.
It’s this lack of readily available support that has made many students turn to faculty instead. As mentioned, this tends to disproportionately increase workloads on faculty of color and ultimately make it difficult to give students equal opportunities of support.
“Fresno State is known for being diverse,” Contreras continued. “But it is not known for its inclusivity. It’s hard for students to feel represented. And it’s really hard for students to find a mentor in a professor who has 100+ students to teach.”
Contreras also mentioned that Fresno State’s business strategy has made it more difficult to pay for tuition by limiting the amount of job opportunities through the university.
She explained that there have been furloughs and firings in Fresno State at the auxiliary level, and the university has also limited the amount of work-study positions for students.
This has been particularly puzzling for Contreras because, according to her, work-study jobs are paid for by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If she’s correct, this means the government that pays the salary of students in work-study, not Fresno State.
So why has Fresno State limited the amount of work-study positions for students, if it doesn’t come out of the university’s pocket?
Fresno State President Joseph Castro explained that work-study programs were actually partly paid by the university (at least half of a student’s check).
But the decision to limit work-study positions was not made as a cost saving strategy, it was made to lower the number of students on campus and mitigate the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
He also stated that although most students are not on campus, all resources have been moved online so that all students can still have access. And that the construction projects such as the new student union building and the parking lot, are intended to continue so they are ready for students when they come back.
So far as tuition prices and fees go, Castro cited that Fresno State has the “lowest tuition and fees of any public university in California, with a $250 million dollar financial aid budget,” 70% percent of which goes to grants and scholarships.
“Well over half of students don’t pay any tuition,” Castro added.
Castro’s remarks do provide some insight into the thinking behind the decisions being made.
But other questions still remain regarding where Fresno State’s money is going — or not going. More specifically, why doesn’t Fresno State just tap into the $1.5 billion in CSU reserves to alleviate the rising workloads associated with an ever growing student body?
It’s Just Not that Simple
According to President Castro, there are a lot of misconceptions about how much money Fresno State has in reserves. But the truth is, Fresno State does not have over a billion at its disposal.
The $1.5 billion “rainy day” figure is actually for the California State University system as a whole. That means all 23 CSU campuses have to share this pool of money, and most of that money has already been tagged for certain projects and cannot be used for anything else.
According to the CSU website, less than half of that money can be used for “economic uncertainty” or “catastrophic events,” leaving Fresno State with an even smaller potential piece of the CSU rainy day pie.
So how much money does Fresno State actually have in reserves?
“Our rainy day fund is around $9 million,” Castro revealed. “And I have to be really careful with our university spending because there could be another emergency around the corner.”
Careful indeed, because the university is projected to lose $18.6 million in revenue due to operations such as housing, parking, athletics and the Save Mart Center being significantly affected by the pandemic.
Fresno State did receive about $23 million federal support from the CARES Act, but as mentioned in previous coverage, half of that money went to students.
Not to mention Governor Gavin Newsom’s $299 million dollar reduction in funding for the CSU system, which has resulted in a $13.6 million dollar permanent reduction in state funding to Fresno State’s budget.
“The declining state investment in the CSU is likely to be a multi-year challenge,” Patti Waid, Director of University Communications said. “Knowing this we have frozen all vacant positions, most new searches, travel, professional development and event-related costs.”
Senior administrators have been tasked with reducing their fiscal year budgets by 10%, eliminating 18 management positions.
“Our administration in Fresno State is one of the leanest in the United States,” Castro remarked.
The cost-cutting strategies have resulted in about $8.5 million in savings. But to close the $5 million dollar gap, Fresno State plans to implement even more cuts.
That said, Castro assured faculty and staff that they have worked really hard to keep layoffs as close to zero. He thinks the increase in student enrollment is one of the reasons they have been able to prevent firings and furloughs:
“If we had experienced a decrease in enrollment we would have experienced a revenue loss. But because we have increased enrollment we are in a much better situation than most universities across the nation.”
It’s worth noting that Fresno State is not just fairing better than most universities right now, it’s actually propersing.
Just last week, Fresno State made the top 30 list for best universities in the nation, sharing the glory alongside prestigious universities like Stanford and Harvard. This is the fifth year in a row that Fresno State has made the cut and is currently the only CSU on the list.
Money Magazine also recently ranked Fresno State as among the most transformative colleges in the U.S. with record low student loan debt.
With that in mind, it’s possible that the increase of student enrollment is a side effect of the university’s affordability and consistent strides in higher education.
In regard to concerns about workloads and hiring more faculty to meet the growing student body, Castro recognizes that jobs have changed dramatically since the pandemic and workloads have increased.
He said administration was “very sensitive to the workload issue” and is working closely with faculty/staff unions to address these issues.
Fresno State also intends to hire more faculty over time; this includes hiring more faculty of color to prevent disproportionate workloads.
“It’s true that our faculty of color tend to have higher workloads,” Castro admitted. “This is a challenge for universities across the nation…We’re working hard every day to diversify our faculty to better serve our students and so our faculty of color don’t burn out.”
Castro emphasized the university’s commitment to creating a more equitable environment for faculty to better serve the incoming students from places like Tulare County.
“I’m really excited that more students are coming from Tulare County to Fresno state and we will continue to expand programs like the one on the Visalia campus to meet the needs of South Valley students and families.”