Monday, July 13, 2009

Why undergraduates should be concerned about the proposed UC budget cuts

The short version is: you will be paying more and receiving much less.

The longer version is as follows.

First, some background.

Professors' jobs are divided into research, teaching, and service.

Research means finding out new things in their area of specialty and communicating with the scholarly community about it.

Teaching you know about. But it's a little more complicated than you may know. The reason to go to school at a major research university like UC is that, ideally, you'll be taught by leading experts in the field. So, for example, you could take linguistics from George Lakoff, Victorian lit from Cathy Gallagher, art history from T.J. Clark, algebraic geometry from Ken Ribet, and political science from Wendy Brown. In the best of cases, teaching and research work together, so that the classroom becomes a place for the professor to put new ideas together and learn how to communicate them to non-specialists, and students get to learn cutting-edge material in a way that they wouldn't get it from non-experts.

You know the reality is often a bit different. You take large lecture classes. Much of your face time is with GSIs and lecturers, who may be perfectly competent teachers, but who certainly aren't the Nobel Prize-winners for which the UC is famous, or the up-and-coming young researchers that UC has long tried to nurture. And you have a hard time even getting into those classes, because of long waitlists and too few sections being offered.

That's because for a long time the UC, like most other universities, has been farming increasing amounts of undergraduate teaching out to contingent faculty (lecturers and GSIs), leaving you with less and less access to professors. It wouldn't make sense to take research time away from professors in order to make them teach more sections: then they wouldn't be researchers anymore. But of course, this affects your education.

This brings us to the third task: service. Service is a catch-all term for a wide variety of things that you rarely see, but that are crucial to running the university. Professors run graduate admissions, hire new professors, make changes to requirements in the major, design curricula, run interdisciplinary programs, and handle all kinds of academically oriented university operations. Professors have to be the ones to do these things, because they are academic in nature. You don't want someone with minimal understanding of the current state of the field designing the requirements for your major; you want people who are in the field making those decisions.

All of these service activities affect undergraduates in a variety of ways, visible and invisible, but one is very direct: mentoring. Professors talk to students, serve as academic advisors, supervise thesis projects, and write letters of recommendation. Sure, as a GSI I've written the odd recommendation letter, but you really want, once again, experts in the field recommending you for things. This is an academic issue, but it's also an access issue. Access doesn't just mean being able to afford to physically be on campus; it also means being able to take advantage of what's there, and for that, you need mentoring, especially if you don't come from an academic family.

So professors are very, very important, and we have too few of them. They're stretched very thin, because while grad students and lecturers can do (some of) the teaching, they can't (and shouldn't, because they aren't paid for it!) deliberate in the Academic Senate, redesign the major, hire new professors, or supervise theses. (I'm not against lecturers or grad students -- obviously. But they're another, complicated issue. Perhaps another time.)

Now, the current UC budget situation.

The plan is to make major cuts across the board, including cuts to all faculty and staff salaries above a certain baseline (in the form of mandatory furloughs). Here are some projected impacts of the cuts, as detailed in the New York Times:

“The impact of this cut is devastating,” Mr. Yudof said at a press briefing. “There is no way that we are going to be able to look every student in the eye and say, ‘Tomorrow, the University of California will be just the way it was yesterday.’ ”

Most of the university’s campuses will defer at least half of their planned faculty hirings, Mr. Yudof said, and the Berkeley campus expects to reduce faculty recruitment from the usual 100 positions a year to 10.

Chancellors from the individual campuses will present their cost-cutting plans next week to the state Board of Regents, which must vote on the entire budget.

Many of the planned cuts, and those already put into effect, impinge upon the university’s academic offerings.

The Irvine campus has halted admission to its doctoral program in education, and its Latin American studies program is on hiatus. Class size is expected to increase 10 percent to 20 percent next year, while faculty and staff is expected to decline by at least 10 percent over the next five years.

At the Davis campus, the Medical Center has eliminated its liver transplant program, and in the division of humanities, arts and cultural studies, 44 courses and sections are expected to be cut.

The University of California, Los Angeles, will close its Labor Center, and deans and faculty members have been told to reduce courses, majors and faculty size by 10 percent to 20 percent over the next year. The freshman enrollment target on the campus for the 2009 fiscal year may drop by as many as 500 students.

At the Santa Cruz campus, most general-education courses with fewer than 100 students enrolled have been canceled, along with the bachelor’s degree in earth sciences and the minor in music. Creation of an environmental sciences major has been deferred.

The San Diego campus has eliminated senior seminars, a small-group experience for students, and curtailed freshman seminars.

The University of California has faced financial challenges for years, leading to bigger classes, fewer course offerings and deferred maintenance — and caused some faculty members to defect to competing universities.

Tuition has risen to more than $8,700 for in-state students this fall, more than doubling from the $3,859 nine years ago.

Okay, so we're hiring fewer professors. Remember, we generally only hire professors to replace ones who have retired or left for other reasons. So we're effectively shrinking the faculty.

And then there's retention. Remember that right now we have a top-quality faculty; in fact, that's the reason UC is so good. But now we're cutting their salaries. Bear in mind that UC professors are already paid less than their peers at other universities, and it's a lot more expensive to live in California than in, say, New Jersey. (And rightly -- sorry, William Carlos Williams.) Both faculty and staff have been losing real wages for years as the cost of living has gone up and, year after year, the administration, pleading budget problems, has denied them cost-of-living increases. So some of the faculty may already be on the verge of leaving. A recent Inside Higher Ed article quoted a UCI dean on the subject:
“The privates have come calling,” says Ruiz, dean of the University of California at Irvine’s School of Humanities. “I’ve lost very valued faculty members to Yale, to Northwestern, to Penn, to Pomona, to Scripps, as well as to even.... ”

Ruiz trails off, then gives a few more names, sounding a bit surprised to mention them: Lehigh University and Fordham University. Fine institutions to be sure, but not the sort Ruiz expects to lose to in a bidding war.

“We are not able to put together the counter offers that we have in the past,” she says soberly.
Currently, we have a critical mass of brilliant people at UC, which makes it an attractive place to work in spite of the comparatively low pay. But if we lose that critical mass, the damage to our research programs could be permanent. This matters for your education now and for the value of your degree later.

The staff have been under increasing financial pressures too, and while they may not be fleeing to private universities, their furloughs will still impact you. If you think it takes a long time for bureaucracy to move now, wait until the staff have eleven to twenty-six fewer days in which to do it. (At least in my department, the staff have been overstretched for years.)

So: budget cuts are bad, and these budget cuts in particular.

But, you might be asking, why are the faculty displeased with the UC Office of the President (UCOP) instead of, say, the State Assembly? And if there's really no money, then is there really any way out of these cuts?

Good questions all. California is undoubtedly going through problems, and its budget priorities do not include higher education. That's bad, and we need to change it. But there are also reasons to be uncomfortable with UCOP's response to the state budget crisis.

1. President Mark Yudof has asked the Regents for (renewable!) "emergency powers" to effect the above-mentioned cuts. That seems worrisome.

2. Although UC administration assures everyone that the cuts are necessary, it has not proposed any attempts to close the budget shortfall by looking for new sources of revenue. The faculty and staff have wondered why their salaries are the first line of defense. UCOP has said that it has explored other options and found them nonviable; the faculty and staff have wondered why details on those other options have not been forthcoming.

3. Although UC administration assures everyone that the cuts are necessary, it has declined to release budget details to the faculty. The faculty have asked for greater transparency.

And again, this is all happening while your fees are yet again being raised.

What should you do?

1. Stay aware of what's going on. It's your university and however you may feel about university policies, they affect you.

The UCOP budget news page is here.

Chris Newfield of UC Santa Barbara is keeping close track of the budget situation at Remaking the University.

UCB professor emeritus Charles Schwartz blogs about it here.

The UC Berkeley English department has several documents posted on its blog.

2. Consider signing this petition, if you agree with it.

Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments.


Izzy Bee said...

How can we trust your opinion?

Natalia said...

An opinion is by definition not something to trust; it is something to consider.