CSU: University Administrators Need a Report Card: A+ for Exploitation!

by | November 16, 2021

This winter break, most of the faculty at the California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) won’t be able to completely forget about work. Instead of concentrating on leisure time or unwrapping delicious tamales, most of us will compile what we have come to refer to as (insert music to signal impending doom) The File.

The File, officially known as the Retention, Tenure, and Promotion Interfolio (or RTP Interfolio) is the annual review process that CSULA conducts of its mostly lecturer faculty (also known as adjunct or contingent faculty). Those seeking tenure or salary promotions (which by the way are very limited and cumbersome to attain at CSULA) must also be evaluated via this process.

Via the RTP Interfolio, the university reviews documents such as curriculum vitae, Student Opinion Surveys, class syllabi, and peer observations. It also asks us to demonstrate our relevance in the field and our contributions to the university. Additionally, we should list our professional achievements, publications, participation in professional organizations, relevant conferences and events. We must provide supporting documents to assure that we are not inventing our accolades. This review process yields the following ratings: Unsatisfactory, Satisfactory, Good, Commendable, and Outstanding. Every year, despite how taxing, triggering, and problematic this review process can be (a topic deserving of its own separate essay), we faculty suck it up and comply. Failure to engage in this process may result in a dire consequence. A lecturer might not be re-employed the following year. One might also lose opportunities for promotion or tenure.

At the end of each semester, students have the opportunity to review faculty via Student Opinion Surveys. These surveys become part of our permanent employee records, and they can help or hinder future employment or promotion prospects. Our union, California Faculty Association (CFA), which is currently negotiating the renewal of our bargaining agreement with CSU, proposed that the university take into consideration the implicit biases perpetuated by the Student Opinion Surveys toward women and LGBTQIA+ folks, as well as Black, Indigenous, and faculty of color. The university has rejected this proposal, along with almost all of the proposals offered by CFA that center basic student, faculty, and staff rights.

Like faculty, students are also evaluated at the end of every semester via course grades. Grades become part of students’ permanent academic records and can impact financial aid, access to scholarships and internships, graduate school, and more.

While students and faculty are regularly evaluated, and thus held accountable, campus administrators are not, at least not by those of us who are most affected by their decisions and leadership, or lack thereof. Even when democratic governing bodies on campus express discontent in leadership, there are little to no repercussions. For instance, in May of 2019, both the Associated Students, Incorporated (ASI) and 50% of the Academic Senate at CSULA issued a vote of No Confidence in President William Covino. President Covino, who makes an annual salary of $350,000 received a 10% raise despite his poor ratings. In fact, this past month, the CSU Board of Trustees gave all CSU presidents a generous 10% pay raise for the next three years! This is on top of already outrageous salaries, ranging from about $300,000 to $450,000 annually. These salaries exclude the $50,000 to $60,000 rent stipends (or free housing) that these university executives receive. Further excluded from those figures are additional perks, such as monthly stipends for car expenses.

The same tired argument is repeated to defend inflated salaries of college administrators. According to it, CSU must provide its top executives competitive wages. This past September, Trustee Wenda Fong was quoted in EdSource, stating, “Our current salaries are not sustainable in a market where highly sought-after leaders have choices about where they commit their time and talent.” To attract good leadership, trustees argue, the university must compete with other high-paying administrators in other universities around the country, some of whom can, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, make up to $800,000 a year. This vicious cycle of competitive wages for the already overpaid translates into keeping up with the university Joneses. This practice drains financial resources from public education resources. It creates an elite class of “leaders” who are completely out-of-touch with and seemingly indifferent to the day-to-day realities and challenges faced by students, faculty, and staff. 

While top CSU administrators received 10% salary increases last month, Chancellor Joseph Castro has rejected our current labor union’s contract proposal for a 4% salary increase for faculty. CFA proposed a 4% retroactive salary increase for 2020, a 4% increase for this year, and a 4% increase for next year. Chancellor Castro, who earns an obnoxious annual salary of $625,000 (a 30% salary increase from the previous Chancellor), instead offered a 2% increase for faculty for this year alone. To add insult to injury, our “leaders” want to increase our parking fees. As Peter C. Herman writes in the Times of San Diego, “You would think the administration would be generous in its salary offer, especially given all the personal sacrifices faculty have made to ensure education continued while COVID-19 raged (and continues to rage). Instead, they offered a measly 2% raise this year, and 0% for next year. Which really means a salary cut, given the 5.4% rate of inflation. Rather than our salaries going up 2%, if the administration has its way, they will go down by 3.4%. And even more the next year.” The university also cannot convincingly claim that it cannot afford these meager raises for faculty. Herman adds, “Unlike previous years, the CSU has plenty of money. Thanks to the state’s $75 billion surplus, Gov. Gavin Newsom has not only restored the steep cuts imposed last year due to the pandemic, but added even more to the budget.”

In May of 2021, Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times, noted that “[overall,] Cal State would receive an increase of $519.9 million in ongoing funding for 2021-22, which includes restoring a $299-million budget cut last year and adding more money for mental health, basic needs, and other program. Cal State also would get a one-time allocation of $325 million, which includes $150 million in federal funds, for critical infrastructure, maintenance and renovation projects, under Newsom’s proposal.”

Unfortunately, these allocated funds have not translated into the hiring of more mental health therapists at CSULA. Molly Talcott, who is on the bargaining team and also the faculty rights chair of CFA at CSULA, shared in an October 2021 post to social media that “Cal State LA has one counselor for every 3,800 students, the 2nd worst in the CSU system (of 23 campuses). The minimum professional standard is 1 counselor per 1000-1500 students.” The therapist-to-student ratio is even more disturbing when considering that CSULA is a Latinx-majority institution that services a large number of low-income, first-generation college students. In May of 2021, Medical Stanford reported, “In every corner of California, the Latino population has faced a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, undergone testing at a lower rate, and suffered more [cumulative] deaths than any other race or ethnicity, according to Stanford-led research.”

About the minimal mental health resources available to students at CSULA, Leda Ramos, lecturer faculty in the Chicana/o Latina/o Studies department, CFA Lecturer Representative, and Academic Senator for the College of Ethnic Studies, says, “Our demographic of students need direct mental health counseling. Aside from counseling, CAPS [Counseling and Psychology Services] also does assessments for learning disabilities and interfaces with the Office of Student Disabilities. When we don’t have enough counselors for students or when a counselor leaves, student cases fall through the cracks. Learning accommodations are not provided, GPA’s fall, students drop out or are pushed out.”

This dearth of mental health resources makes it such that faculty, by default and proximity, often assist students in times of crisis. This is not unique to CSU. In April of 2021, Inside Higher Ed reported that students on college campuses are increasingly relying on professors for mental health. Referencing a study conducted at the Boston University School of Public Health, where 1,685 faculty members at 12 colleges and universities across the United States were surveyed, Inside Higher Ed notes that 87 percent of professors “say student mental health has ‘worsened’ or ‘significantly worsened’ during the pandemic. Just about 80 percent of professors have had one-on-one phone, video or email conversations with students in the past 12 months regarding student mental health and wellness.” Not surprisingly, this mental health labor is gendered, with female professors doing more informal therapy than their male counterparts. Racism is also a factor. The findings report that “one in four professors believe that their institution is at least somewhat hostile toward students of color.” This hostility may lead students to seek help from professors of color with whom they culturally connect and feel safe. Such labor drains faculty of color, causing cultural taxation. Molly Talcott of CFA shared that “CFA struggled mightily to get the CSU to allocate funds to culturally taxed faculty. This year at the table, they have rejected our use of the term ‘cultural taxation’ in our proposed contract language.”

Instead of investing to reduce the current therapist to student ratio, which is currently 1 to 3,800 at CSULA, we are seeing a growing push to train faculty to be “mental health allies.” On its News page, one of CSU’s headlines reads, “Mental Health First Aid training program empowers CSU faculty to become mental health allies for students.” Having allies can be empowering. However, in the context of academic institutions thriving on faculty exploitation and invisible unpaid labor, especially by women of color faculty, this push should be scrutinized and treated with skepticism. Our students need and deserve much more than “mental health allies.” They need direct, accessible mental health services provided by professionals who aren’t also (due to low pay and crappy working conditions) juggling classes and hundreds of students per semester while still financially struggling to make ends meet. Why is it permissible to offer so little to the mainly working-class, first-generation, “diverse” student body that CSULA often boasts about serving?

CSULA doesn’t shy away from boasting about its student demographics. On its website it references a study where CSULA was ranked number one in the U.S. based on the upward mobility of its students. The study, conducted by The Equality of Opportunity Project, was published in The New York Times in January of 2017. The university’s website states, “Cal State LA has long viewed itself as an engine of social mobility because of its success in educating its diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.” A little later, it adds, “Our outstanding faculty and staff understand well the transformative role of public universities. They know what is needed to take students from where they are, to where they need to be.” Much needs to be said about the university’s tendency to pay lip service to “outstanding faculty” while failing to compensate us with dignified wages and benefits. Ironically, the university that ranked number one in the upward mobility of its students (thanks to the hard work of faculty and staff) can’t even offer its faculty and staff pay increases that at the very least keep up with annual inflation rates.

The university’s claim to “diversity” is also problematic. Covering the CSULA Convocation 2021, Cal State LA News reports that President Covino said, “Throughout this year and beyond, we will continue our work to maintain a diverse and inclusive campus where all students feel a sense of belonging.” However, Black enrollment and retention continue to be a major problem at CSULA. Black enrollment in 2020 was at a dismal 3%, something the Pan African Studies (PAS) department and Black Student Union (BSU) continuously challenged the university on. At Convocation 2021, President Covino claimed that Black student enrollment was on the rise, with the university admitting “24% more Black students for fall 2021 than in fall 2020 and 140% more than in fall 2019.” These figures are confusing, as they do not specify how many Black students are actually enrolled and what percentage of the student population they form. The Fall 2021 Student Enrollment breakdown by ethnicity/race on the Cal State LA website is a bit clearer. It lists Black enrollment at 3.76%, which remains incredibly low. Lastly, there was no mention of retention rates in President Covino’s address nor of any programs that specifically uplift and support Black students long-term. How is the university actually addressing and dismantling anti-blackness? How exactly are Black students expected to “feel a sense of belonging” at CSULA? Issuing statements condemning the death of George Floyd and declaring that Black Lives Matter ring hollow if there are no concrete programs and policies implemented to counter systemic anti-Blackness.

Another CFA bargaining proposal rejected by Chancellor Castro and his team involved modernizing parental leave for faculty and staff at the CSUs. Currently, parental paid leave at CSU is 30 days. On its Bargaining webpage, CFA states, “The brunt of childcare duties is still highly gendered and it is therefore important to highlight the paid benefits set aside for faculty who give birth. Pregnancy, birth, nursing, and undue social pressures around parenting are unique obstacles not faced by other faculty. Having policies in place which ensure that everyone can develop their careers regardless of gender or their family planning decisions is essential to having a fair and safe workplace.” CFA’s bargaining team presented the parental leave policies of three comparable universities (Arizona State University, USC, and Pomona College) to provide context and justification for modernizing the current CSU policy. These comparable institutions offer anywhere from 10 weeks to a full semester of paid parental leave, along with paid disability plan options. CFA’s current proposal asks for one semester or two quarters of paid parental leave. The proposal was rejected by CSU with no counter offer. Whereas trustees and university administrators insist it is important to keep up with competitive university salaries for top executives, they do not exercise the same concern when it comes to keeping up with competitive parental leave policies.

A problem that has become increasingly clear is that the CSU administration is completely out of touch with their employees and the students they serve. Instead of truly uplifting us in “these unprecedented times,” they line their pockets with public funds. Their decisions are top-down and since those at the top live in another financial and social reality than the rest of us, they have no idea how hard this past year has really been, how much we are still struggling, or how much they are pissing us off. We desperately need systemic change and an external ethics committee to oversee how public funds are being distributed and spent on CSU college campuses. In the immediate meantime, maybe a report card for administrators will let them, the general public, and our elected officials know what we think of the job they are doing.

Dear Cal State LA administrators, below is your current report card. It’s abridged. I’m sure my CSU colleagues and our students will have more to add.

Olga García Echeverría, born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, is the author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas (Calaca Press and Chibcha Press). Her poetry and essays appear in numerous anthologies, print magazines, and online literary venues. She has been an educator in the literary arts for over 25 years and currently teaches literature in the Chicanx Latinx Studies department at California State University of Los Angeles. For the past decade, under the leadership of Poets & Writers and California Center for the Book, she has worked as a bilingual workshop leader for the Rural Libraries Tour, which facilitates creative writing workshops in rural and underserved areas of California. She and Maylei Blackwell are the literary executors for the beloved Colombian American lesbian poet and publisher tatiana de la tierra.