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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Notes from the Field

In the past 10 days I have lectured at San Francisco State, at the University of Washington,  and at half of UC's campuses. I have had the pleasure of spending several hours at each place with faculty and staff who are trying to keep things one their campus from getting worse, and picked up a few repeat issues.
  • No expansion, all contraction.  Like Herbert Hoover before them, the governors of the Western states are focused exclusively on deficit reduction.  There is no other goal of governmental policy than to spend less money tomorrow than the amount we spent today.  Reflecting the general paralysis, not a single person I met was discussing a stimulus push. UC, CSU, UW, et al should be demanding an economic stimulus and rebuilding strategy in which they would play an important role, but this  is off the table.  I wondered more than once if we will be remembered in future decades with the same mix of pity and contempt we reserve for contractarian goats like Mr. Hoover.
  • "We'd protest, but we're late for work."  One student activist said the students most in need of stable public funding are working two or three jobs, usually adding up to close to 40 hours a week.  "In the 60s, there was time to think, to go to meetings, to participate politically."  Students are as active as ever, she said, but given time constraints and other ties tend to do politics in their communities, where things are just as bad.
  •  Backward Budget Policy.  In general, administrators still treat the budgetary structure of our common  institutions as proprietary information, to be retained or dribbled out at their discretion.  Virtually everyone I spoke to is resigned: there isn't enough time in the day to ask for every spreadsheet six times or even to request a single number like the base figure to explain the percentage cut represented by a number that just appeared in a memo.   A few Senate folks have deep knowledge of parts of the budget.  There is an active transparency project at UC San Diego (displays correctly upon download). This is important work. It is also the exception rather than the rule.  And it means enormous duplication of effort and reduced personal effectiveness for the faculty members who are forced to play spreadsheet hide-and-seek in order to understand their own institutions and provide creative input.  This is not behavior required by healthy institutional cultures.
  • Decline of educational quality.  I heard examples at each campus. The chair of one top-5 engineering department described cuts in the number of required laboratory courses their majors took, and growth in the size of each lab group in the remaining courses. He then said that a company that hires 40-50 of their graduates each year told him that "the quality of your graduates has been going down for three years now. They're smart, but they have less experience and need more help."  At another campus, a social scientist told me, "As my courses get bigger, I focus on signing-in, test recording, attendance, and behavior.  It is increasingly like teaching high school."
  • Moribund reform processes.  No one suggested the Commission on the Future might come up with useful suggestions, or had much good to say about the first round recommendations. Expectations of UCOP are at an all-time low.  Few people seem to assume that UCOP is working for rather than against the campuses.  Folks had an easy time listing UCOP destabilizers of the system - operating cuts, salary cuts, pensions put in play, faculty role in instruction questioned, unions disrespected - but no services or supports.
  • Ending the system. For the first time in my experience, at least one person at each campus asked me whether I thought breaking up the UC system would be a good idea.  Sometimes it was to get Campus X free of the burden of the other campuses. Usually it was to free Campus X from the burden of UCOP.  We have moved rapidly away from the "Power of 10" mantra of past years, and people are desperate enough to be considering divorce.
  • Braced for further decline.  this was the dominant mood, although everyone was looking for a way out. My lectures have been trying to propose a way forward and I've been heartened by the intelligence and energy of the discussions.
  • Community bridges, public service. Individuals and groups are doing wonderful things for California communities. Cal State's Metro Academies Initiative was one standout.  Great people and great work are everywhere on our campuses. So how can we make our university systems greater rather than less than the sum of their parts?

1 comments:

Gerry Barnett said...

I heard Chris's talk at UW Bothell. The discussion that followed was remarkable for being almost entirely unengaged with the idea that there was a problem in the finances. It was almost like an opportunity to riff on whatever one was interested in. At one point, and English professor attempted to make a virtue out of the wonderfulness of differences, and that these should be maintained as unresolved, from which some sort of nervous creativity might be derived.

Given that UW is running in UC's trail, about two years late, just now getting around to furloughs and a change in leadership, it's dismaying that people at UW are not on high alert. The great distractor here is "activity based budgeting" which is sure to bring disruption, a new regime of accounting fictions, and a shift of more reliance on tuition and tuition subsidies.

One is left wondering if the humanities and arts should reorganize as a new set of professional schools and compete for their status, and public purpose, in areas such as "innovation" (rather than activism), "technology" (rather than performance), and "economic development" (rather than critical theory). It's the same stuff, but the old vocabularies are decidedly archaic.

Otherwise, it appears that the new humanities are the BLEMS--business, law, engineering, and medicine, social sciences--which have made a much stronger case to the public, and even within the university, that they serve humanistic goals and are the centerpiece of university arguments for contribution to community/society/nation.

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