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Friday, March 6, 2020

Friday, March 6, 2020

UCSC, The Fate of Graduate Education, and the Future of the University

The labor action that began with the grade strike in Santa Cruz and has now spread throughout the university has cast a painful light on UC and on the working and learning conditions of its graduate students.  Both the national and the international press have taken notice:  the strike and the administration's response to it has been covered in the NYT, the UK Guardian, the Washington Post, Salon, and even Teen VogueBernie Sanders and the AAUP have both issued statements condemning the administration's response.  You have seen the various statements on the blog.  They all point to the crises facing graduate students and the inadequacy of the University's response to them.

But it is equally clear that too much of the discussion has gotten trapped within a constrained range of considerations:  that these are wildcat strikes against the current contract and illegal under the current system of labor law; the treatment of undergraduates as passive bystanders whose interests--depending on which side you talk with--are being threatened either by the strike or by the response to the strike; the accusations of bad faith which have led to the dueling unfair labor practice complaints filed this past week by both the UC and the UAW.   These pressing but constraining debates are themselves, like the strike itself, a symptom of a larger crisis that needs to be addressed and addressed openly--that the strike is itself the outcome of a nearly two-decade-long failure of the university leadership (starting with the Regents and OP) and the State to adequately fund graduate education and research.  The strike is a moment for reconsideration:  is the state of California remain committed to a high quality system of research universities and does the University leadership fully grasp what that would entail? This is a question that is even more pressing as the Regents move towards selecting a new president.

The best way to start this discussion is with Chris's favorite graph:


Put simply: the chart takes UC 2001 funding as a proportion of the state's per capita income and uses it as a benchmark.  The blue line indicates where UC state funding would be if the state had kept funding in line with the growth of per capita income.  The red line indicates the actual state funding UC has received (and proposed for 2020-21).  It's hard to miss the extremely large gap between the lines.

Now I understand that someone can object that there is no logical reason why UC (or higher ed funding in general) should perfectly track per capital income.  As both the Coronavirus and the homeless crisis remind us, new challenges do emerge that divert funding.  But the striking thing about the graph is both the size of the gap and its growth over time.  Moreover, by taking 2001 as a baseline (and not, say, 1970) the graph demonstrates not only that there is no economic necessity for the decline in per capita funding but it also highlights the gaps ideological nature by connecting it to the administrations of Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose ultimately broken compact with higher education included the demand that students assume more financial burden for their public education) and Jerry Brown (who refused to recognize the numerous ways that UC supports the state beyond its function as a grantor of undergraduate degrees).  The mess we face today is an ideologically-driven under-funding that has been accepted (when not encouraged) by the University's leadership.  And this says nothing about the effects of twenty years of student enrollment growth since this graph is presented in nominal dollars.

At the heart of this funding gap has been the inability of the University to show the governor and legislature the full significance of university research and of graduate education.  This is, to be sure, a difficult task.  Most of the legislators have not been graduate or professional students at UC and the greatest source of political pressure they receive is from the parents of undergraduates (or, more painfully, the parents of students who were not admitted as undergraduates).  But as the university's handling of the current labor crisis reminds us, neither UCOP nor the Regents have, for 20 years at least, been able to explain to the state exactly why they should support doctoral education.

The latest example of that inability has been the effort to set undergraduate students off against graduate students.  Instead of seizing this crisis to make the fundamental point that graduate and undergraduate education are inextricably linked, and that the conditions of life and work for graduate students are already affecting the education of undergraduates, they have sought to suggest that it is only in the withholding of grades that students suffer from the condition of graduate education.  But as everyone at the university well knows, graduate students play a central role in the support and education of undergraduates even when they are themselves being forced to work multiple jobs, live in overpriced or substandard housing, and find themselves food insecure.  If the state and public truly care for the education of undergraduates they would demand that graduate students learn and work in secure conditions.

Indeed, the size of the COLA demands is itself a sign of how deeply precarious graduate education really is.  I've seen overall cost estimates ranging from $300m to $600m, depending on how many graduate students would receive a COLA. (For a very helpful demonstration of the dimensions of the problem go HERE.) That would mean an increase of between 7.5% and 15% of the state's general fund support for the university.  The University requested an increase of approximately 7% this year (without including increases in graduate student salaries of course) (20). The Governor countered with a proposed  5% increase in continuing funds that in reality translates into a little over 1% of an increase in core funds.  Put another way, if the state and the university continue in their present trajectory the under-funding of graduate education will only get worse.

But even that picture may be too optimistic.  UC has announced its 2030 goals of increasing the number of degrees by 200,000.  The only way to meet these goals without a further decline in quality is by increasing the number of faculty and graduate students.  Otherwise, class sizes will increase, faculty and graduate student teachers will become increasingly overburdened, responses to undergraduate writing will all but disappear, all problem sets will be machine-graded, and the deep education that the university exists to provide will be made more and more shallow.  Unless there is substantially increased funding for graduate education the 2030 plan will exist only as a hollow shell of its promises.

So far, I have only been discussing teaching pressures.  But if the university has done a poor job of explaining to the state the interconnection of graduate and undergraduate education, they have done even worse in explaining graduate research.  Put simply, UC has been a world-renowned resource for research and insight across all disciplines not only because of its faculty and professional researchers but also because of its graduate students.  There is no research university without graduate education.

Moreover, there is no research university without the support of non-commercial research.  UC, like so many of its competitors in isomorphic imitation, has placed increasing emphasis on the possibilities of commercializing its research and lauding its production of startups.  But these are private gains;  UC is supposed to be a public trust and its greatest contribution to that public trust is through the knowledge that it produces and transmits not only to its students but to society.  One only needs to look at the crisis facing society today: climate change, growing economic inequality, the looming COVID-19 pandemic, the reemergence of exclusionary ethno-nationalisms based in myth, growing surveillance under the sign of techno-determinism, and a world of internet dystopias to recognize that the greatest public trust that UC stewards is the continuing production of knowledge.  And that it is needed more than ever.

To return to my starting point, the continued flow of knowledge and insight--in classrooms, labs, libraries, and creative arts venues--in teaching and research can only be maintained not by some sort of enforced labor peace but by a deep reinvestment in graduate education and research.

This is not something that UC can do on its own.  In the immediate short-term campuses can try to reduce as many of the housing burdens of their graduate students as they can; in the medium term, campuses should increase the amount of affordable graduate housing.

But the greatest task is facing the University as a whole, especially UCOP and the Regents.  The graduate student strike has made dramatically visible what any aware member of the university has long known: the university has been severely underfunded for two decades, the tactics and strategies that the university has adopted will not preserve the research university; and that students, both graduate and undergraduate have suffered. The University has for too long pretended that it can manage financially with increasing tuition, philanthropy, tech transfer, and internal privatization.  The inadequacy of those approaches are crystal clear now.  And it is up to the University leadership to recognize that and make it clear.

Regents Policy 1100 indicates it is an obligation of the Regents to:


Ensure adequate resources and their effective management. This includes serving as advocates for institutional needs with external constituencies.

It is time they begin to do that job.


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