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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. California State University is in trouble. It's the country's largest four-year public university system and today, the Cal State faculty union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike over working conditions and pay. Also today, students began a hunger strike, demanding a tuition freeze. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, this crisis the result of massive state funding cuts.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Cal State University has 23 campuses and over 420,000 students. It's one of three public institutions of higher education in the state, the University of California system and community colleges are the other two. But in the last 10 years, Jarrett Lovell says CSU has hit a wall. Lovell teaches criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton.
JARRETT LOVELL: And in the 10 years that I've been here, I've received a 3 percent raise. I can't afford a home. I could barely afford to rent.
SANCHEZ: After taking a 10 percent cut in pay in 2010 and agreeing to an 18-day furlough, Lovell and his union, the California Faculty Association, are asking for a 1 percent salary increase this year. But it's not just about the money, says Lovell.
LOVELL: Classes are getting cut. Workload is increasing. Class sizes are increasing. And that results in a poorer quality of education. And, yes, some of that has to do with morale.
SANCHEZ: For 22 months, the California Faculty Association and CSU administration had been at an impasse over new terms for evaluating full and part time faculty and at least, $214 million in salary increases over three years. Impossible, says John Swarbrick, CSU's lead negotiator.
JOHN SWARBRICK: Our question back to them at the table is where does this money come from, not only for this fiscal year, but for each fiscal year going forward?
SANCHEZ: Union leaders say from the same place CSU took money to give campus presidents a salary increase at the same time they were raising tuition. Two presidents got a 10 percent increase just this past March, an increase that CSU spokeswoman Claudia Keith defends.
CLAUDIA KEITH: None of our presidents have gotten an increase since 2007. They all took furloughs just like all of our employees. So we've all had to sacrifice. Faculty are not alone in that. Our students have had to sacrifice. They're paying more and probably getting less.
SANCHEZ: CSU's budget crisis, of course, is the result of the state's own budget crisis. Lawmakers slashed $750 million from the California State University budget this school year, triggering layoffs, caps on enrollment and a 9 percent increase in tuition and the state isn't done cutting. In the next few months, it's likely to cut another $200 million.
SEAN ACSELROD: It's a scary future because you don't know what's going to happen. I mean, if this system crumbles, it's going to become only the rich can go to school.
SANCHEZ: Sean Acselrod, 22, is a criminal justice major at Cal State Fullerton. He's graduating this month, but like thousands of seniors he almost didn't because he had such a hard time this semester getting into a course required for graduation.
ACSELROD: When I tried to register for it, I was shocked that I was put at number two on the wait list. How can you justify paying all the money if I can't even get the fundamental classes they tell me I need to graduate from here? I would make the argument that you're not getting your money's worth for your education.
SANCHEZ: Cal State University officials say campuses have had no choice but to ration courses, eliminate programs and even turn away eligible students. Again, Claudia Keith with the chancellor's office.
KEITH: We've turned down 25,000 students last year, couldn't get into the California State University because we did not have a spot for them. That is what the public should be in an uproar about, not that we are being, quote, "unfair" in terms of our collective bargaining agreements.
SANCHEZ: Faculty members get angry too when they hear that their demands are unfair. At Cal State Dominguez Hills, several full and part time professors have set up a table near the entrance to the library. They say they have no job security and they're working harder for less money every year. That's why they're striking. Clare Weber, a union member and chair of the sociology department, says the shoddy treatment of faculty ultimately hurts students.
CLAIR WEBER: This is their one step into, you know, decent jobs and a middle class lifestyle, and they're being denied that.
SANCHEZ: For students, as one professor put it, what was once the gold standard of higher education in this country has turned into fool's gold. It sure feels that way, says Jessica Sharpe, 24, a chemistry major.
JESSICA SHARPE: There is a kind of a gloomy mood and you kind of start getting off topic in classes when you're talking about this stuff. I feel like our education is being wasted.
SANCHEZ: Sharpe says nobody is blameless here, not lawmakers, not taxpayers, not faculty or administrators. Still, tomorrow both sides will meet yet again face-to-face to see what, if anything, they can agree on. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.