A budget crunch at UC Merced has hit lecturers. ‘We’re eating into our savings’ 

On January 24, 2024 by Rachel Livinal
Caleb Westby is a part-time band teacher at Central Valley High School in Ceres. This job was among the dozens he applied for the summer after his contract with UC Merced was not renewed. KVPR/Rachel Livinal 

[email protected]

MERCED, Calif. — At the University of California, Merced, lecturers make up almost half of faculty members, representing the largest percentage of lecturers when compared to other UC campuses.

Those lecturers are now feeling the impact of flatlining enrollment and a budget crunch at the campus in the middle of the state’s agricultural heartland. Amid efforts to contain the budget gap, lecturers say they have seen less work and their positions eliminated.

Lecturer salaries largely come from a portion of the university budget labeled “Temporary Academic Support,” which is funded by tuition and fees. 

Lecturers are instructors who teach undergraduates and are typically hired to fulfill a short term role that can’t be met by existing professors. Unlike professors, lecturers are not considered permanent employees. 

In August, UC Merced Chief Financial Officer Kurt Schnier reported the Temporary Academic Support budget for the university’s three colleges – engineering, natural sciences and social sciences, humanities and arts — had accumulated a total deficit of $3.95 million. 

But in total, the university in the 2021-22 fiscal year, reported a total $24.7 million deficit  and projected it to grow slightly this year to $27.2 million. The university has not released its latest figure for the 2022-23 fiscal year deficit. 

The university has tried to close these financial gaps. 

According to Schnier, in the last academic year Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz approved over half a million dollars meant for research staff support to help close the deficit, and almost $2 million was contributed from salary savings that was available due to faculty vacancies. 

Those allocations, however, haven’t fully solved the problem. 

“Although academic affairs has been able to cover these deficits with internal salary savings, we hope that moving forward academic affairs will be able to balance the [Temporary Academic Support] budget and preserve internal salary savings funds for other areas critical to its operations,” Schnier wrote.  

Schnier, who declined to be interviewed but offered a statement, told KVPR in December around 40% of expected tuition and fees is allocated to support “lecturers, teaching assistants, teaching fellows and readers.” He added the university relies on enrollment for a substantial part of its budget. 

In the last three years however, enrollment for the campus has stalled. In 2013, the university set out to enroll 10,000 students by 2020. But as of last fall, the university had 9,148 students officially enrolled.  

Sacrificed because of budget problems?

Caleb Westby is among at least 15 lecturers who have either seen their contracts not renewed, been laid off, or had full-time work turn into part-time since last year. 

He currently makes a 40 minute commute to Central Valley High School in Ceres, a city north of Merced, for a job as a band teacher he didn’t imagine he would be doing.

A year and a half ago, he and his partner moved to the Valley from Oklahoma to take a lecturer job at UC Merced. 

“When we moved and got settled and started working at UC Merced, my partner and I talked about it and we were really pretty content to just die here,” Westby, 30, said. 

He taught a couple semesters, fell in love with the community and the university, and was putting together a plan for the future. 

Then at the end of May last year, Westby’s contract wasn’t renewed.  

PHOTO CAPTION: Caleb Westby (left) gives students one-on-one attention for any questions they might have. KVPR/Rachel Livinal

Some see the university’s budget deficit as playing a factor. 

“We were specifically being told that we’re being sacrificed because of budget problems,” said Shannon Garland, a UC Merced lecturer for global arts studies who helps organize the University Council-AFT, a union that represents librarians and non-senate faculty members at the University of California. Garland also makes sure the contract is followed at UC Merced.

Last fall, the union pushed to slow or stop the lecturer cuts, and Garland said at least for now, “We have mostly assurances” that there won’t be additional lecturers cut from the college of social sciences, arts and humanities. 

“There are some asterisks and caveats,” she said. “So in certain scenarios, they still might be laid off.”

Garland said lecturers reported needing to meet a 60% enrollment requirement in the spring, which means courses could be dropped if enrollment in them fall below that threshold – potentially cutting back the number of hours a lecturer can teach. 

Garland sees that requirement as undermining the university’s “teaching mission.” She said if class sizes are increased but the number of professors or lecturers is dwindling, it’s harder to provide a high quality of teaching while having less time to tend to students’ needs. 

Officials take measured steps 

Marjorie Zatz, interim executive vice chancellor and provost whose position was recently filled, said in an email to KVPR that lecturer positions are adjusted based on school finances. If class sizes increase, she said the university tries to make only “small increases.” 

“We are simultaneously analyzing data to ensure this does not adversely affect students,” Zatz added. 

She said lecturer hiring decisions are made by deans in consultation with department chairs. Whether more lecturer cuts will happen in the future depends on the needs of a department or college, Zatz said.

Schnier, the university’s CFO, acknowledged funds pulled away from other areas of the campus to cover the deficit can have consequences.

“Any funds reallocated to cover the deficit would lower campus spending in another area on campus,” he said.“The campus has one holistic budget and an increase in one area necessitates a decrease in another.”

Lecturers fill financial gaps

PHOTO CAPTION: Tommy Tran and Crystal Cho Jones sit in their living room of their apartment with their two cats. KVPR/Rachel Livinal

As the university tries to manage its budget, the shuffle in lecturer positions has, for some, meant they have less work. 

In the fall, one of Tommy Trans’ three classes was dropped, which also considerably lowered his salary. Tran, a history lecturer with a doctorate in philosophy, said he went from earning $66,000 to $47,000 a year. 

To bridge the gap created by the loss of income, Tran is trying to start a small art business with his wife, Crystal Cho Jones. On a recent day, wooden paintings, postcards, and prints they spent hours crafting by hand were strewn throughout their small apartment. 

Cho Jones is disabled, and hasn’t been able to get a steady job. In total the couple said they’ve made around $750 from their new business since July, but are still using savings to cover their monthly rent, which costs almost double their earnings. They don’t know whether purchasing a home is financially feasible for them. 

“We’re eating into our savings which is the down payment for a house,” Cho Jones said. 

Cho Jones crafts paintings of characters in Korean culture, plus characters related to special holidays like Dia de los Muertos. KVPR/Rachel Livinal

Tran and Cho Jones also draw postcards by hand to sell at local markets in Merced for $10 to $15. KVPR/Rachel Livinal

And those whose jobs have disappeared altogether from the campus have also had to make tough decisions. Westby, despite holding a doctorate in musical arts, said he frantically applied for jobs when his position was eliminated. 

Courses Westby taught were canceled even though students had signed up for them. 

The only course that was reassigned was a swing band class that Westby’s colleague, Jayson Beaster-Jones says he fought to keep. The course fulfills an “ensemble” requirement students need for their degree in global arts studies. 

Beaster-Jones said even though they have smaller class sizes, it’s important for those courses to remain. Most students who take the classes aren’t in the major. Without word-of-mouth, he said those classes don’t survive. 

Despite Beaster-Jones’ efforts, special classes like those are waning. The other two classes Westby taught — which include making electronic music and songwriting — were only offered because Westby had expertise. 

Westby said he was fortunate to find work still teaching music at a high school. Though, he had looked for work outside of teaching, too, like retail at Home Depot.

“The kids that I get to work with at [Central Valley] are outstanding and it’s a wonderful program,” Westby said. “I’m really looking forward to helping them build because we need more kids in the band.”

His colleagues at the high school are hoping he’ll stay on and become a full time band teacher. But Westby says he’d like to get back to teaching at a university. 

He served as a music technology coordinator while at UC Merced, he said, where he assisted with the recording studio equipment and performed other related maintenance. He said the university realized – after he left – that they still needed to fill that position. 

“Lo and behold you still need a music technology coordinator, even if you cut all of my classes,” Westby said, describing what he sees as irony. “So there’s all of this need that of course was not part of the consideration.”

As for his long-term plans of making a life in the Valley, he says the shakeup among lecturers has left him less certain he can achieve it, unless something changes. 

“It’s remembering that no matter how much loyalty or work or effort you give to an institution, that institution doesn’t necessarily reward those things,” Westby said.

Rachel Livinal covers higher education for KVPR in Fresno and the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.

Leave the first comment

Filed under: County, News +, The Valley

Let's keep in touch.

Select list(s):