Faber leads faculty push to preserve UC luster

Sandra Faber worked with other prominent UC faculty to speak out on the effects recent severe budget cuts will have on UC. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Sandra Faber is a world-renowned scholar in the scientific community.

But in the past month, the University Professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC has also become the face and voice of faculty concerned about the future of UC amid the recent painful state budget cuts and resulting furloughs for faculty and staff.

She led a widely publicized campaign to send a letter and white paper to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decrying the cuts and describing how they will destroy UC's standing, delay economic recovery for the state, and cause faculty salaries to be nearly 20 percent below market rate. The letter was signed by 300 UC professors who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

The missive originated as a draft written by Mark Krumholz, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, and several colleagues.

The letter began because of "a feeling that we were seeing the university fall apart before our eyes and we wanted to say or do something about it," said Krumholz. "We wanted to point out to the administration, the Legislature, and the governor that defunding UC has consequences. The University of California isn't a luxury that in bad times you cut back on -- it's an investment that produces long-term returns."

Faber edited the letter and then worked with UC Berkeley astronomer Chris McKee to gather signatures from other top UC scientists.

"I thought that if professors didn't speak up for UC, clearly people will think we don't care," Faber said, explaining her leadership in the letter campaign while sitting in her sunny office in UCSC's Center for Adaptive Optics on a recent weekday morning.

Faber also wanted those in her department to know she'd fought for them if and when they began considering offers from competitors.

"I wanted to lay a foundation of credibility with my own troops," Faber said.

At their July 15 meeting, the UC Regents approved an emergency measure proposed by President Mark Yudof to institute furloughs and pay cuts for UC staff and faculty. Faber spoke before the Regents at the meeting, saying UC's future is in jeopardy because it's already struggling to attract and retain the top-rung academics the university depends on.

Faber also told the Regents that the furlough plan should be a one-year term only. Any longer, and key faculty will be lured away by competing institutions that can afford to pay them better, creating a "brain drain" from the University of California and permanently tarnishing its standards, prominence, and reputation.

Krumholz thinks even the one-year furlough will spark faculty flight, since private institutions and other state universities could attempt to raid UC faculty in an effort to raise their standings.

The media have reported widely on Faber's efforts; she's been quoted in newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, and was featured on NPR's Morning Edition.

No stranger to media attention -- a few years ago, Faber served on a National Academy panel that considered the controversial question of whether or not the Hubble telescope should be repaired one more time -- the astronomer said the latest round with the media has been "energizing."

"It's extremely entertaining," Faber said. "Every second is something new. I've always enjoyed experiences that teach me things and cause me to learn and grow."

The next step, she said, is to go to Sacramento and talk to legislators, working to influence policy.