Saturday, May 23, 2009

Furloughs, language and politics

State workers in Wisconsin are pretty upset about getting 16 days of furlough over the next two years, including University of Wisconsin employees.

First, to the politics. Of course this is all the rage as a budget cutting measure. Among the major institutions passing out the furloughs are the University of Maryland, Arizona State, Clemson, Utah State, while other states (Illinois, I gather) have simply 'rescinded' big chunks of their universities' budgets. For most people at a university, a furlough is simply a temporary pay cut: We can't or won't actually work less. Some proposed steps, like actually closing offices on the Friday after Thanksgiving, are utterly without consequence — that's a day I work at home anyway, for example.

In some ways, I'd rather take a small pay cut than lose more faculty and staff, but there are massive problems with applying this to everyone at the university. A tremendous amount of the core work at UW-Madison is done by academic staff, from instructional people to very high level administrators. If you furlough them across the board, though, you need to consider their funding:

That is, core state funding (GPR) is less than a quarter of their pay, while most of it comes from grants and gifts. Politically, the deal is that many want "everybody to share the pain" but it's pretty stupid for non-state-paid people to share it. Why not then have the captains of industry be furloughed and take that money? Of course the federal grant funds that are paying about a quarter of academic staff funds cannot be hijacked here. This might be a good time to remind our elected leaders that less than 20% of our budget comes from the state. In fact, the latest word from the UW-System says (emphasis added):
Facing a combination of budget cuts, employee furloughs, and canceled pay plans, the UW System will contribute at least $211 million in GPR savings to help close the State’s budget gap – equal to 9.2% of taxpayer support for the public university. The UW System will be required to contribute an additional $34.6 million in revenues from other sources to address the growing State funding shortfall.
This is not good. The Department of Corrections, it's being said, may furlough employees and then pay overtime to cover the shifts. Brilliant.

Second, to language. Furlough is one of the surprisingly large number of Dutch loanwords in English, from verlof. The semantic development is an interesting one, though. It was and is widely used as a specifically military term for 'leave', so a positive thing. Judging from OED Online, it was extended to any kind of leave from work long ago. Merriam-Webster gives the verb with one meaning of 'to lay off from work', but without any chronological information. It's got that old euphemistic feeling to it — though hardly as bad as 'enhanced interrogation' for 'torture'. Any idea how old that meaning is?

No comments: