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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Twilight in Riverside

by Toby Miller, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies

The phones are being turned off. The garbage is no longer being removed from offices. Student fees are rumored to be going up by 35%. Faculty salaries have been slashed by 4-10%. The entire place will be closed from mid-December for weeks. Dozens of chairs at the University of California, San Diego have signed a document proposing the entire closure of three smaller UC campuses because we’re not really research universities and we cost money that could otherwise be allocated to the flagships of the UC system.

That’s life at UC Riverside just now. A superb Executive Vice-Chancellor/Provost has resigned because she won’t administer these brutalities. Meanwhile, managerial homilies emanate from senior management in regular “letters” to the “community” using clichés of the kind I generated as a speech-writer to boring bureaucrats and businessmen in the mid-1980s, like “Doing More With Less,” “The Riverside Opportunity,” and assorted inanities. Are people truly still paid to do this, and are there any readers out there who are seduced by them?

My own department has seen the other senior professors leave; a high-quality junior faculty member denied tenure; and rejections of incremental advancement for other deserving faculty.

It’s a very tough time in what used to be the jewel of public higher education. As the flotilla sinks, people flee to safety. Faculty are looking around, and other schools are looking at them. The University of Texas system is rumored to be using a massive fund to hire talent. The University of Southern California, an immensely rich private school here in LA, has lost a billion dollars in the value of its endowment since 2008, but is still much better-off than a decade ago. This is a special opportunity for it to raid the UC for the best scientists in the world (the cost of good science is always a problem for private universities to meet, due to the high initial costs and ongoing refurbishment of equipment).

The question is how bad the long-term impact will be: whether counter-cyclical policies to retain key faculty will work if this is not a dip in the Cali economy but its demise, at least in terms of transfers to public service from the private sector. Put another way, even if the state had the wisdom to sustain the UC through the crisis until tax receipts picked up once more, would there be any point if the crisis in fact has no end point but is rather a brutal transformation that shrinks the public sector irrevocably, thereby finalizing the longstanding wish of the Republican Party to “starve the beast” (the “beast” being the population, understood as those receiving the support of tax-funded programs)?

You can’t blame students for looking on aghast and hoping it just gets better, or taking direct action such as occupying Dean’s offices. You can’t blame the professoriate for being struck dumb and hurting but doing nothing collectively, or organizing vigorously and criticizing all levels above them. You can’t blame the staff for refusing to accept furloughs thanks to union opposition, or wishing the union would let them do so and thereby protect their jobs. It’s a wildly contradictory time, when all of the above is happening.

That wildness of US capitalism is nowhere more fully-experienced than in the west coast of the country, were crazy asset inflation was the root of the global financial crisis. Depending on which evaluation you look at, my loft is worth between seventy thousand and three hundred thousand dollars less than a year ago. My street (in a beach suburb of Los Angeles, not in the harder-hit Inland Empire, where Riverside is located, 100 km due east) is littered with fancy residential buildings that lie empty even as homeless folks cluster by street lights holding banners inviting drivers to help them “stay drunk.”

So unlike your other foreign correspondents, I’m telling a story of doom and gloom just now, as the adventure of a system built with such hope just fifty years ago, that quickly produced dozens of Nobel Laureates, pioneering novelists, ethnic-studies innovations, Marxist-feminist enclaves, and medical schools the envy of the world, comes to a shattering end. To be here now is to be present at a turning point in educational history, when pages are torn from a playbook and lives are torn asunder. Dedicated scholars who had made the decision to join the ranks of the gentried poor rather than follow mammon find that the supposed trade-off—you can pursue your research secure in the knowledge that your basic welfare is secure—no longer applies. It’s a meltdown.


Bronwen Rowlands said...

Very well said. Close to the bone and close to the truth for most of us UC people, if we're honest. Here at Berkeley, the flagship, we melt down sporting a quizzical look, with our pinkies held aloft.

anonstaff said...

And I thought life at Berkeley was glum.....at least we're "only" talking about closing departments and not closing the entire university. Our department has just decided not to admit any new grad students this year. We need to be able to support the ones we have.

TB said...

For a second I thought Toby Miller was serious -- until I saw his referring to Ellen Wartella as "a superb Executive Vice-Chancellor/Provost". Going into details here would be very much off-topic (and likely inflammatory), so I'll just say that Toby Miller's opinion is *far* from being shared by *many* on this campus. My own department breathed a collective sigh of relief when she was gone, and we are far from being alone.
Calling us (meaning UCR, I take it) a "jewel of public higher education" is nearly as pompous as that UCSD chairs' letter. We'd like it to be one, we are working our arses off to make UCR into one, but come on, face the reality -- we are not quite of the "jewel" quality yet.
No, I'm not advocating closing our campus or arguing against the fact that the cuts are gravely jeopardizing our future and our ability to provide quality education. It's just that
such grand posturing displayed here by Prof. Miller cheapens many of his valid points.

Aldo Antonelli (UCD) said...

Frankly I thought that by "the jewel of public higher education" Toby Miller meant the entire UC system, an assessment that looks right on the mark to me.

As to the doom and gloom -- is there any reason not to?

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate of UCR, I find this a bit offensive. I really don't think Mr. Miller made a conscious effort to find out what's actually happening here. We've been working hard with what resources we have (unlike other campuses with much more money and resources). We have had many strong grassroots movements and to portray us as zombies that doesn't get garbage picked up after us is rather insulting.

While Mr. Miller makes a good point, he loses his credibility for turning us into a sacrificial lamb for what appears to be just a literary affect.

And honestly, of all the UCR actions, events, and meetings I've been to, I haven't seen Miller at any of them. This just appears to be another person who complains in hopelessness rather than actually doing something...

Anonymous said...

Yes; this is the perspective of a "foreign" correspondent, in that his depictions are completely alien to me and most fellow faculty here. Please talk to people beyond your narrow circle of deposed Provosts (who were problematic in so many ways), and please think before suggesting that tenure cases are driven by budget concerns. The UC personnel process is one of the most transparent, and fair, systems of promotion, and you do it injustice by invoking innuendo in a piece that makes for great literature, but awful reporting from the ground. Cheer up, mate, and don't make us unnecessarily paranoid.

UCstaffer said...

Indeed - what a pompous post. And without anything productive to say!

Anonymous said...

Professor Miller,

I wouldn't boast about all those Marxist feminist enclaves that UC has produced -- sounds like the exclusive purview of tenured radicals and may not be a great selling point to Californians losing more than jut their fancy lofts...jeez...this post is why we need to keep a lid on some high earning profs who live in bobo neighborhoods 100 miles from where they work!

Anonymous said...

You sound completely insane and/or radically leftist.

What exactly are you reading in your marxist feminist "loft"?

Leslie M-B said...

Another sad thing about professors jumping ship is that their current and (still-underemployed) former graduate students have to compete with them. Like other universities, UC is training a ton of humanities Ph.D.s for a job market that doesn't exist--and now is adding insult to injury by creating a situation where grad students are competing with their mentors for jobs.

Chris Newfield said...

Beyond my deep dislike for personal attacks made under cover of anonymity ("you sound completely insane and/or radically leftist"), I am struck by how many of the comments on this post focus on style rather than content, or find something "foreign" about it. The author was not born in the United States, but has been a full-time faculty member at UCR for many years, and, I believe originally wrote this for a non-US publication. If there is other and/or conflicting information about actual conditions at UCR I would very much appreciate hearing about it. I would also appreciate ideas about which problems at UCR need to be addressed most urgently, perhaps in tandem with the other post on UCR (http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2009/11/news-from-uc-riverside.html) that came in just after this one.

TB said...

A number of people (myself included) have pointed out that aside from pompous/pretentious stile, Prof. Miller's perspective is quite skewed. He clearly tends to imply that events such as Executive Vice-Chancellor/Provost stepping down or a junior faculty member in his department not getting tenure are a result of the UC troubles. In fact, the former is connected with the hiring of a new chancellor, and it is all but expected that a new chancellor would change the "guard". Were she truly exceptional, this may have raised some eyebrows, but as my and someone else's posts indicated, many considered her to be quite problematic. The latter charge -- the implied connection between the tenure decision and economic climate -- is even more troubling, and I am glad someone has pointed it out. I do not know the details of that case firsthand, I've just heard the rumors which I am not going to repeat here. Let us just say that the opinions about both the strength of the case and its handling by the department Chair (i.e. Prof. Miller) differ.
I really do not want to turn this topic into discussing personal matters, but I really object to the allegations that are implied in Prof. Miller's letter.
As for the pompous stile, American English is not my first language either, but I can assure you that the style in question is not a hallmark of Aussie English (or any other variety of English, for that matter). Coming from overseas myself, I could not care less where Prof. Miller was born, but I assume that the charge of being "foreign" was a reference to his expressed views being quite foreign to the spirit if UCR.

Gerry Barnett said...

I agree, Chris. Folks should take the personal attacks, whether anon or not, elsewhere.

The discourse challenges are substantial. I don't care, really, whether something comes off as passionate, or pompous, or unpopular, humorous, idealistic, sentimental, or unworkable. It's not the exoskeleton that matters, but the guts. The effort here is not to perfectly anticipate the tonal needs of every reader, but for readers who participate to ask, what does this post or comment point out? How might this work? How would this take things in a desired way, given the circumstances that present?

If we don't have "deal flow" of ideas and perspectives and styles of presentation, and we don't have the chance to win over to a workable response folks who start at some distance from it, then what's the point of discourse? UCOP/UCOF already has a direction set, already has a big-time plurality mask going, and the greater the fragmentation in the apparent hinterlands, the more readily the approach being taken will press toward its necessary outcomes regardless of any other public discourse.

Sorry if I'm making blog comments out to be something of substance, and not just blow-away minor entertainment. Perhaps a blog cannot handle tone and nuance sufficiently well to carry discourse at the level necessary. Perhaps personal attacks is a necessary lulz of otherwise diligent efforts. But then, perhaps also we have *no* public forums remaining that can do so, and if so, then we must make one, somewhere, that does. A blog with thoughtful, diverse comments might be as good as anything.

Catherine Liu said...

Chris, I have to concur with Toby Miller's critics that his elegaic tone expresses a kind of defeatism and poetic resignation to "twilight" that does not help the cause of fighting for public higher ed. "Not being born in the US" is no excuse for a certain tone deafness about the rhetorical strategies we need to employ to defend the UC. As you can see from the comments, there are quite a few members of UCR's community who are actually afraid to speak out publicly against Prof. Miller's positions. I wish this weren't so, but we should all be able to take dissenting points of view, esp. in blog comments, which on the whole on your blog appear extremely moderate and temperate compared with the run of the mill commentary. Personal attacks aside, I think praising "Marxist-feminist enclaves" is not going to win us friends and allies. It's the enclaves part that most provokes me. The university as enclave is not a great model for the future. We should be re-inventing it and not writing its obituary.

Creature said...

Yes, we are losing focus. I think there is something instructive and insightful in the cynicism. When public higher ed is sinking fast, it's time to THINK (as clearly as possible) and ACT. Miller points to intellectual achievements correctly (you don't have to be Marxist or Feminists... but it wouldn't hurt!). Cynicism may be an understatement. There exists a real battle between the mentality of Neoliberalism (Darwinist logic of the Market) versus sustaining Public Institutions (UC, CSU, JCs, etc). We might need a few mobs out there next week if we want our movement heard: "the only way the system listens is when you attack its property, its image or its resources..." RECLAIM PUBLIC SPACE

Creature said...

GGRRrrrrrrrr... - tinnngggg! that's the sound of the cage door opening... somebody left it unlocked...

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