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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018
The answer should be an obvious no, but UCOP prepared a document for the UC Regents meetings this week that points UC in that direction.

The document is background for a preliminary discussion of the UC budget for next year (2019-2020). It advocates another multi-year agreement with state government about general funding. The immediate context is Jerry Brown cutting this year's agreed increment from four to three percent (less than that net for various reasons), as well as the overall sub-par condition of the University, again facing a series of underfunded costs summarized on page 1.  New regents will not understand the regular state breaching of compacts with UC and CSU or overall state funding declines from this document. Our overview here would be more help.

The larger context is that UCOP has never found a storyline that has attracted the state's politicians into real reinvestment.  UC's general fund has been going up at about the rate of consumer inflation (which is generally below higher education inflation).  In recent years, the state has grossly underfunded new enrollments, as the budget document points out (3).  The de facto state theory has two parts: (1) UCOP cost claims are not credible enough to address; (2) UC undergraduates can be taught for an amount similar to that of community college students.

What narrative could dislodge this second assumption?  Facts on the ground suggest it can't be.  Cal State's Board of Trustees have discussed becoming an "all-transfer" university, on the theory that their state funding doesn't allow a full-scale lower-division program. UCOP took the deal of $5000 per new resident undergrad, and as far as the state knows nothing bad has happened.  In order to keep its nonresident tuition at current levels, UCOP also accepted the pressure to increase transfer students until they are one-third of new admits, and has been making progress.  This ratio has always been a Master Plan obligation, and in my long experience, transfer students are comparable to students who started at UCSB.  But assumption (2) remains: UC lower division education is about the same as community college, and additional money put into it is probably waste.

The narrative that could justify more enrollment funding is that UC undergraduates need more, better learning than they are now getting, and will need further upgrades in the near future. Better learning produces both pecuniary and nonpecuniary benefits.  As I noted last time, the value of universities is disproportionately nonpecuniary, so stressing only wage and workforce effects guarantees underfunding.  UC, Cal State, and the community college system all generate intellectual and sociocultural capabilities that help wage gains and job growth indirectly, but can't be measured in those monetary forms.

Unfortunately, the UCOP budget document ties future budget increases to the University's ability to support the workforce with bachelor's degrees.  The goal is "Investment to Improve Graduation Rates, Reduce Time-to-Degree, and increase degree production" (5-6).  The target is set by the shortage of 1.1 million B.A. degrees that the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has projected for 2030 (UC's share would be 251,000 additional degrees). This commits UC to producing more degrees through faster and shorter UC learning.  

I can't delve into each of the problems with this position, but will list the main ones:
  1. workforce development has always been a formal UC goal, and has not stopped state disinvestment. (See this consultant report from 2003, which in spite of its subtitle is only about economics and health).
  2. UCOP encourages the nonmonetary effects of university education to remain "dark matter," even though nonmonetary benefits explains the cost differences between universities and job training centers.  These start with new knowledge through research--obviously a core mission of research universities--and include doctoral education and the formation of non-routine cognitive skills in undergraduates.  Both of these are slow and hard. 
  3. the means UCOP proposes to get the additional quarter-million B.A.s--faster- and horter degrees--slights UC's already very good graduation rates among public universities, and downplays previous progress towards shorter degree times and higher graduation rates.
  4. It also ignores the possibility that further rate increases will be much harder and more expensive. They will often involve fixing social and economic problems, such as excessive student work hours to cover basic expenses like food and rent.  UCOP is effectively putting UC on the hook for the state's high poverty rates and very high income inequality, which it lacks the means to solve.
  5. The normal way to increase quantity is to cut corners and lower quality.  Campus administrations already pushed departments to minimize degree requirements after the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, many have or are moving to increasing units for a standard quarter course from 4 to 5 but without increasing instruction, so students can graduate with fewer courses.   More undergrad education will have to be done by the youngest and least experienced instructors, primarily graduate students and adjuncts.
  6. Paradoxically, promising to improve graduation rates will increase the chances of sub-par funding.  That's because permanent austerity has already forced the kinds of academic shortcuts that have pushed students through more quickly. The lesson the state has drawn is that less money for UC means more UC degrees.  
  7. UCOP is avoiding discussion of B.A. degree content even in the context of a narrow, monetary, human capital model of the degree.  PPIC's calculations use wage premiums to identify "college" jobs (they are these where the employer is willing to pay more to get bachelors' degrees) . They do not do content analysis of future skills (See Technical Appendix C, p 15).  Jobs in 2030 are likely to require better BAs, not just more of them.  UC could be caught far behind the quality curve.
Since UCOP isn't explaining what is really special about UC upper and lower division education, it is putting the University into price competition with the CCCs. They are cheap because they are underfunded, lack research faculty, and over-use contingent faculty.  UC can't come close to CCC cost targets, but straight workforce preparation calls are asking for UC to be compared to them.  (Workforce prep also undermines the documents other goals, like well-paid high-status research faculty.)

The quality of the education UCOP gives the regents is especially important now.  California gets a new governor next year. UC got four new regents in August, none with evident educational experience.  They need reasons to see the ideal UC as something other than an inexpensive provider of middle-skill workforce growth. This document doesn't give them any.

On the other hand, a faculty group, either the Senate or CUCFA, could write a better storyline, one that includes workforce data while going well beyond it.  Why don't we do that?

Update: Cloudminder recounts the lack of meaningful review of Jerry Brown's four August appointments to the Board of Regents, with clips.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018
I don't see how we're going to survive the 21st century without much better human relations.  I do see ideas about better human relations as depending on humanities expertise.  Silicon Valley and Wall Street don't agree with me, and put their faith in programming.  Yuvai Harari, the historian of all human history, doesn't agree either.  He was on KQED's Forum talking about his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.  There was really only one lesson in his radio answers: the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

It was odd because Harari has a real historian's sense of specificity, which helped him reject callers' claims for trends that will be uniform across the planet.  For example, he said that guaranteed minimum income might address jobs lost to robots in Germany and Japan but not in Bangladesh and Honduras.  I waited for a reference to building global planning agencies through upgraded capacities to do trans-cultural cooperation. It didn't come.

Again and again, Harari placed whatever hope he had in "hacking the human."  Code had to overwrite human factors.  Algorithmic progress was inevitable and AI was here to accelerate it.  He knew that only a minority of the world population would benefit, but he said nothing about how to solve the political and cultural problems so tech could help overcome inequality rather than making it worse.

I was listening to him while reading Facebook posts about the new MLA Job List.  One friend counted a total of 16 tenure-track jobs in African American literature-- for a country with 7000 colleges. The survival of much if not all of the humanities is at risk.  But in Harari's model, that wouldn't slow down progress.

This KQED Harari is wrong-- the world absolutely needs what humanities scholars know--about languages, the history of cultural conflicts, the communal effects of every kind of identity in their startling fluidity, the psycho-cultural impacts of economic inequality, for starters. So what can we do, besides what we've been doing, which is accepting austerity?

Here are two things.  

The first is confronting the Great Mistake from within humanities-based theory.  That mistake was to retreat from defining academic knowledge as a public good and restructuring it for market forces.   Economists generally define public goods too narrowly, as non-excludable and non-rivalrous.  We got confused about higher ed because we exclude people from higher education all the time and make them rivals to get for the really good versions of it, so maybe it was an individual private good, which is what colleges say to prospective students when they recruit them. 

In reality, about half of the total value of college is nonmarket, indirect, and/or social-- according to the one guy who heroically tried to add it up.   This is what the idea of public goods expresses.  All sorts of educational effects are what economists call "nonpecuniary." They have a value that is greater than what individuals receive as a private return, and often don't have any equivalent monetary quantity.  (See Stage 1 of TGM for more on this -- now in paper!)  

These effects are well known, and everybody from students to business executives call for basic ones like critical thinking, problem solving, oral communication skills, or a capacity for lifetime learning.  And yet by measuring their value as a pecuniary return like an increased salary, we systematically neglect the nonpecuniary effects. We underinvest in them, or in other words subject them to market failure, with some fairly obvious social results.

Many other nonpecuniary effects are equally important.  In lit crit we roll our eyes when a radio show host talks about how reading novels teaches empathy.  Yet it is broadly true.  It is also true that empathy is a public good that can change the world.  It's hard to imagine international political progress without a very big increase in cross-religious empathy, and on a global scale. 

The troubles of the humanities flow inevitably from the decline cycle that this retreat from public goods set up.  That retreat induces not only the bad accounting I just mentioned but also a shift to the relentless pursuit of non-state funds, nearly all of which is returns-tested, meaning it's not allowed just to benefit people and society generally.  The veneration of revenues with calculable returns discourages universities from having enough internal, institutional funds to support their noncommercial research (TGM Stage 2).  That includes all the research that cannot be justified with claims to future revenues through the sale of a license or product or service.   "Small science" doesn't get properly funded. And the humanities fields are barely funded at all.  All sorts of research outputs simply never exist.  The same is true for the nonpecuniary / social benefits they might have produced. 

The decline cycle also routinizes "limited learning."   It's really hard to grasp something like the big picture of a culture's history by grasping the main lines of hundreds of years of literary output. It also takes a long time.  Maybe it takes 10,000 hours, but we teach literary history and everything else in 40 hour chunks, giving in a 10-week term as much direct intellectual contact as some college sports require over 10 days.  Private return-on-investment calculations will always underfund real learning, leading us to replace mastery as a B.A goal with something like mechanical competence in written communication for most students (TGM Stage 6).  MOOCs and other short-cuts fill the gap.  Since we haven't detailed the nonpecuniary benefits, politicians want professors to teach twice as many students for today's workplace tasks.  But deep learning probably means teaching half as much, more intensely, with more than twice as many professors.  The point here is not a particular number, but that the private-good model keeps us from even admitting the losses to both individuals and society of limited learning, to say nothing of doing something about it.

The second issue is why Theory (our HT from last time) hasn't done much with institutional and economic value.  I remember, around 25 years ago, when the Village Voice was really a thing, that the critic Scott Malcomson asked why Derridean theorists weren't also critiquing the premises of finance capital.  We never did answer that question, or just actually do it.  Now the answer seems to me to be a lack of intellectual confidence.

The Ronell case has produced some examples.  In a fairly nasty piece, the eminent modernist Marjorie Perloff spent much of her commentary saying how worthless Ronell's kind of theory is.  She didn't say Ronell argued A and B on topic C when a good HT person would have argued X and Y on topic Z.  She made the whole field seem empty.  

To make matters worse, she concluded, "the focus . . . should shift, as it has at many institutions, to undergraduate education, for it is the undergraduates who will determine the future course of a discipline like Comp Lit."  It's completely true that the drop in major numbers does need to be reversed with better undergrad curriculae.  But Perloff's message is that lit crit doesn't produce the kind of worldly knowledge that requires doctoral training and tenure-track jobs.  Backing away from humanities doctoral education will make the whole situation worse.  

Equally senior Germanist Bernd did the same thing in a belated score-settler with Ronell (see the Salon translation of the original German): he produced such a wall-to-wall trashing of Ronell's legacy as authoritarian in thought and deed that he trashed the entire field. 

I thought this might just the the message from people who had already hated HT in the 1980s. But then there's this passage from NYU grad student Andrea Chu's powerful piece, which got relayed enough times for me to ponder it carefully.
Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god. 
In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.
I'm horrified that any graduate student would have this experience of PhD-level literary study, in which it is nothing more than belabored overcomplexity yielding errors to be used in power shows.

We have to fix the second problem before we can address the first. We can't just say that Chu's description isn't typical.  Folks in HT, lit crit, cultural studies, will need to be relentless and systematic in saying what our research programs are.  We need to explain why we pursue them the way we do.  

Above all, we now have to spell out the humanities' nonpecuniary benefits.  Theorize this.