Opinion » Commentaries

No confidence

Some of Cal Poly's faculty members believe the administration isn't treating them fairly



On Thursday, April 16, Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Kathleen Enz Finken met with the faculty in an emergency “listening session” to address increasing faculty concerns about stagnant salaries and the phenomenal growth of administrative positions and salaries. [Note: You can watch the entire session on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN463YayvBs]. In my 18 years as an instructor at Cal Poly, I have never seen so many faculty members take time away from their teaching duties to attend such a session. I have also never seen so many faculty members united against administration policies.

Given the decades-long history of Cal Poly’s faculty salaries lagging behind those of comparable institutions, the faculty finds the president’s repeated statements that faculty salaries are his No. 1 priority hard to believe. Cal Poly, under President Armstrong, spends a higher percentage of its total budget on administration and spends far more money on administration per enrolled student than any other CSU campus according to data from The Sacramento Bee and Cal Poly. This is not surprising given the president’s salary (more than $350,000) and the provost’s salary (more than $250,000) are above the CSU average for their respective positions.

The faculty, on the other hand, has been asked to do more with less for a number of years. The increase in the number of administrative positions coupled with high salaries have begun to generate a sense of disbelief: How can it be possible that administrative positions—so far removed from learn-by-doing—are experiencing substantial raises while faculty members at all levels find themselves increasingly challenged to send children to colleges and save for retirement, all while paying today’s mortgages (assuming they can even afford a house) and other bills?

Beyond the worsening trend of administrative bloat, other issues are brewing at Cal Poly. These issues further demonstrate the administration’s failure to effectively lead.

One such issue is the treatment of lecturers. Lecturers perform the lion’s share of teaching students during their first two years at Cal Poly, when student retention is most critical. Lecturer salaries are very low (and are not currently included in Cal Poly’s tepid plans to increase faculty pay); lecturers have low job security; and lecturers who shoulder the equivalent of a full load of teaching at Cal Poly are often forced to work second jobs. Adding insult to injury, the provost stated at a recent Cal Poly academic senate meeting that she thought lecturers were pretty well paid and intimated that lecturers really shouldn’t complain.

The experience of lecturers is gradually becoming the experience of tenured and tenure-track faculty: low pay, under-appreciation, and loss of control over our professional lives. The change stems from the top-down corporate-style university management and a subsequent loss of the collegiality between administration and faculty that has been the hallmark of the university environment. As such, the administration has slowly been chipping away at the fundamental relationship of the learn-by-doing philosophy at Cal Poly. While facilities are a critical part of Cal Poly’s success and a focus of university fundraising, an even more fundamental part of that success is the relationship between student and instructor. Without a continued personal foundation, new facilities are no more than an academic Potemkin Village—a façade promising the benefits of learn-by-doing that hide diminished and marginalized instructors. We are not interchangeable cogs in a corporate learning environment and subject to the whims of the market. We are what makes Cal Poly successful. The long-term loss of faculty confidence in university administration erodes Cal Poly’s long-term future as a premier educational institution.

Of course, as instructors at Cal Poly we have been accepting of our salary reality because we love teaching. But even the teaching is getting harder because of the increasing demands of the administration on our time. We are facing larger class sizes, increased data reporting that often seems to have more to do with administrative needs than with improving the quality of teaching, and increased demands to fundraise—something we thought the administrators were supposed to handle.

The administration’s defense reflects the language of the corporate environment and also reflects the increasingly dominant paradigm of the market. The argument put forward is that, to get Cal Poly in a positive financial situation, we must pay administrators competitive salaries. President Armstrong’s starting salary was higher than the final salary of President Warren Baker—a man who served as president for 30 years and helped build Cal Poly’s modern reputation. Yet the president’s salary is what was ostensibly required to get the right person—even though he is a first-time president. Faculty members have not been so fortunate; somehow we are not subject to the same market forces that have so richly rewarded the president and provost. In the eyes of the market, the faculty must not be as important nor as worthy of competitive salaries.

Ultimately, many in the faculty have lost confidence in a president that behaves as a corporate manager rather than as an intellectual leader. He speaks the language of managers: He talks of key performance indicators and needing to spend money to make money and managing Cal Poly’s brand. We faculty can defend ourselves in the same corporate language: The faculty has a big impact on the California economy due to the contribution of the students we educate—and not just those contributions highlighted by returns on investment and starting salaries which seem to be the favored indicators of the university’s corporate approach. The faculty contributes in a critical way—we make it all possible.


Neal MacDougall is an associate professor in Cal Poly’s Agribusiness Department. Send comments or responses to the interim editor at [email protected].

Add a comment