Faculty salaries are the most expensive portion of university budgets. For institutions with such a vital role in American society, maintaining classrooms with instructors is the most important part of university life.

In recent decades, American university administrators have tried to deal with budget shortfalls by creating faculty salary savings. To avoid politically sensitive tenured-faculty layoffs, university administrators have taken the tack of hiring lower-cost temporary lecturers to service student growth and replace retiring full-time professors.

The California State University (CSU) is the largest university system in the nation, with 23 campuses, nearly 400,000 students, and 23,800 faculty. Yet close to half of all the CSU faculty are temporary lecturers.

In the past decade the CSU faculty lost through retirements over 1,000 full-time professorships who were replaced by temporary lecturers. It became obvious to CSU professors that administrators were using growth dollars for new students, and savings from retiring faculty to hire temporary lecturers, and then keeping the money for other administrator-selected priorities.

The dual problem of exploitation of lecturers, and increased workloads for permanent faculty gradually became more evident on CSU campuses. Exhausted temporary lecturers were seldom involved in regular faculty activities, such as student counseling, departmental planning and campus policy formation.

Instead permanent faculty had taken on the expanded workload with fewer colleagues to share the burden.

After three years of stalemates, frustrating negotiations with a hardball chancellor, pickets and protests, the CSU faculty union was preparing the entire system for a full-blown statewide faculty strike this spring or early fall. Faculty had reached the last straw and was ready to go the distance, but at the last minute the chancellor blinked.

It seems the Sacramento politicians didn’t want a strike in a gubernatorial election year. So they applied pressure for a settlement to which the chancellor reluctantly agreed. The union won three-year contracts for lecturers with six years of service, and expanded lecturer benefits and job protections. More importantly, the CSU agreed to hire 20 percent more tenure-track faculty each year, reversing a long-term trend and agreeing in the contract language that a higher ratio of tenure-track faculty is beneficial to the quality of education.

This agreement is a significant victory for higher education, tenured faculty, lecturers and, most importantly, for the students. CSU has set the standard for reversing the decline of full-time professorships in university settings. Higher quality of education will be the result and lecturers can take a car-exhaust break by settling into long-term, single-campus contractual positions with increasing permanent opportunities. Next time you are on a CSU campus, thank a professor for protecting a vital American resource.

Peter Phillips is an associate professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and vice-president of the Sonoma State University California Faculty Association. He can be reached at peter.phillips@sonoma.edu