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Monday, December 17, 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

In, Of and Out of the UC

Reflections on the 150th Anniversary Symposium of the University of California Academic Senate, Part I, by Anneeth Kaur Hundle (Asst. Prof. of Anthropology) and Ma Vang (Asst. Prof. of Ethnic Studies & History), UC Merced. Photo courtesy of Merced Prodigy

Arrival in Oakland

We felt anxious as we entered the cocktail reception that preceded the keynote and first panel of the symposium and celebration. Located in a large hall of the iconic Waterfront Hotel on Jack London Square in Oakland, we felt like out-of-town infiltrators, from the seemingly otherworldly UC Merced of the San Joaquin/Central Valley and rural California. We felt out of time and place in the almost entirely white space of senior UC Academic Senate leadership, and marked by our generational, racialized, gendered, and cultural differences.  To the right of the entrance was a bar, and most of the attendees had gathered around it, engaged in exuberant conversation as they sipped on cocktails and greeted each other like old pals. People turned to look at us with friendly smiles and also quizzical looks of non-recognition--they did not know who we were and what we might be doing there.

A little nervous but determined, we maneuvered through the crowded entrance to look for a seat. We spotted our fellow panelists and moderator already seated at a table, and upon their invitation, took our seats at the table. Exchanging glances wrought from friendship and solidarity, we thought a drink or two might be in order to make it through the night. We worked our way through the crowd back to the entrance and bar.

The feelings of nonbelonging lingered through the evening’s panel and those of the next day. To be clear, we also belonged at the symposium because we are UC faculty and, at the suggestion of one of our senior faculty mentors at UC Merced, were invited to present a talk for the 150th anniversary of the UC Academic Senate based on our perspectives as junior faculty at UC Merced. However, we also felt that we were token faculty of color in the exclusive space of senior Academic Senate leaders. We were not sure if our visible phenotypical presentation of “difference” as faculty from UC Merced was conflated with or would even erase our substantive, intellectual contributions about our experiences of UC Merced as a neoliberal university. Were we there as objects to represent diversity or were we there to speak as subjects of history about the UC system?
Thinking the “Twenty-First Century Neoliberal Research University”

Our talk at the anniversary symposium was based on a longer, collaborative paper that we co-wrote together, alongside UCM student contributions, which is now in press in the journal Critical Ethnic Studies and which provides an analysis of UC Merced as an exceptional university and institution in the UC system because of its origins, development, and expansion in the context of neoliberal conditionality specific to the Californian and U.S. context from the late 1980s onwards. Our mode of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the UC “multiversity” (to use former President of the UC Clark Kerr’s phrase) and the academic senate was to think about the UC’s mission to uphold public values, connect to larger civic issues and social problems, and envision a democratic polity. Importantly, we did not speak from administrative, or technocratic-managerial perspectives, but as professors and teachers who are deeply invested in the stated public mission of the UC, and who must provide our students with intellectual toolkits to understand their society and circumstances. Thus, our talk was positioned in relation to the everyday struggles of navigating UC Merced and the UC system as junior scholars and researchers, teachers, and mentors for minoritized/racialized and working class students.

Our mode of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the UC Academic Senate began by stating student demands that were expressed at the 2016 celebration and groundbreaking of the UC Merced’s 2020 Project, the next phase of UCM’s campus expansion.

UPRISE (Uprising People Power to Resolve Issues of Space and Equity) is a graduate and undergraduate student coalition at UC Merced, largely led by queer women of color, that demanded the redistribution of university resources for student needs as well as the recognition of their humanity, dignity, and personhood on campus. The student coalition called for cultural and other student centers, increased funding for mental health services, better undergraduate student recruitment and retention, resources for the critical race and ethnic studies program, the diversification of the faculty, and the de-militarization of the campus.

Foregrounding campus structural inequality and the student activism of students of color in our lecture, we argued that UC Merced enacts neoliberal projects by retooling concepts and ideals central to historical and liberal-humanist visions of the University of California--projects such as “diversity,” “access,” “equity,” and “public”--to put them in line with neoliberal campus expansion initiatives. In mobilizing these concepts, rooted in a model of the UC informed by the 1960s-era Master Plan for Higher Education, we addressed how the work of late capitalist inequality is made invisible and normalized in the day to day workings of UC Merced.

We also addressed neoliberal processes as a relationship between late liberal capitalism and multicultural diversity discourses, suggesting that the university deploys “diversity speak” as a technology of governance and mode of managing difference and students’ substantive demands for racial and economic justice through what we define as top-down “neoliberal solidarity projects” (i.e. the celebration of “first-generation” identity etc.)

Finally, we explored the relational politics and practices among staff, faculty, and students of color to comprise what we describe as “nonaligned solidarities in formation”--solidarities that inform a set of strategies of both “playing along” and resisting the university’s neoliberal governance and management of its subjects. Such solidarities are often fractious, messy, and precarious, but they reveal a sense of community and belonging to UCM, as well as a bottom-up vision for a just university that functions to actually serves its students, faculty and staff of color, and communities of California’s Central Valley.

Our intention was to make visible our experiences, those of our students, and both the neoliberal development and governance of UC Merced to showcase the capitalist contradictions of the UC system (much of which is now majority students of color, and which features growing structural inequality) and to build a necessary link between the ongoing labor of the UC Academic Senate’s responsibility to supervise the academic mission of the system and the reality of faculty and student of color needs.

We did this knowing that we had yet to experience sitting on higher level, system-wide Academic Senate committees, and knowing full well that the Academic Senate’s mandate of democratic and decentralized governance exists to represent our needs and demands in lieu of being formally unionized faculty. Our discussion of UC Merced was not meant to parochialize or marginalize the campus as an anomaly, as many in the UC system continue to see it, but rather to suggest that our racialized and gendered experiences, alongside the extraction of our labor, speaks to a larger problem about the UC system as a “neoliberal multiversity.”

We hoped that those in attendance understood that our commitment to the new campus, and to a region of California where people from our own communities (Hmong and Punjabi Sikh) live, requires a serious critique of the contradictions of building a new university that celebrates tokenized and phenotypical diversity, yet does less to direct resources towards understanding the complexity of student personhoods and livelihoods in the region.

For instance, we are concerned about the market-driven instrumentality of educational priorities that result in the divestment of critical humanities education, critical race and ethnic studies, and globally-informed coursework, including language courses, that speak to the realities of student life stories and non-Western forms of knowledge. We wanted to stimulate serious conversations about how the dilemma of neoliberal development and governance at UCM is shaping the direction of the UC. Indeed, public discourse about UC Merced touts it as the “future of the University of California" based upon the high percentage, 53%, of Latinx students. (UC Berkeley and UCLA have 13% and 21% Latinx student populations respectively.) This is what we mean by "neoliberal diversity" logic" UCM’s development and expansion depends on the visible appearance of Brown and Black bodies on our campus, while its diversity discourses and ideologies undermine more substantive financial investment for the hiring of under-representative Latinx faculty and faculty who specialize in course-work relevant to Latinx students.

Thus, as public funds for higher education dwindle, we wonder, are UCM's struggles indeed the future of the University of California system? How would the Academic Senate address our concerns, and how could we work to re-invigorate the Senate with a new sense of urgency and creativity, working towards collective goals of securing public investment, defending the public mission of the UC system, and committing to hiring faculty of color to help educate the next generation of students of color in the UC system?

We presented our talk on the final panel of the day, and at that point, many important guests at the symposium, including UC system President Janet Napolitano and Provost Michael T. Brown, had already left. We had not pre-circulated our talk, and so the discussants on the panel provided commentary that was independent of the talk. Unfortunately, there was no additional time for a question and answer period, which limited intellectual engagement with the talk's ideas, beyond several questions that came from audience members after the symposium was over for the day.

Our overall sense was that we both visibly represented the abstract notion of “diversity” of the UC system, and also provided “raw material” or “data” about the day-to-day experiences of junior faculty and students of color at UCM. Thus the content of our talk, particularly its critical analysis of neoliberal diversity, was relegated to the margins of the intellectual conversations at the symposium, rather than helping to formulate the constitutive core of conversations by and about the Academic Senate.

In the end, it wasn’t that those in attendance did not understand the concerns we raised. It seemed that they valued our perspective of critical disruption and understood it to be a part of the historical tradition of the UC. Yet the critical substance of our talk was still co-opted into a celebratory narrative about the UC as an institution that values diversity and the public good. The logic of this narrative prioritized the ways in which the UC had successfully fulfilled its mission of administrative and managerial planning to establish and open UC Merced.

We don’t discount the opportunities that UCM has afforded us as tenure-track faculty in a highly precarious job market, or the important ways it has provided and expanded access to higher education for undergraduate students from California. However, we continue to worry about the quality of that educational access.  We are worried about high lecturer to tenure-track faculty ratios.  For example, in Fall 2018, the proportion of contingent to ladder-rank UCM faculty was 143 to 249,  meaning that over 1/3rd of the UCM faculty are off the tenure track.

We are worried too about over-worked faculty and staff, and the lack of additional tutoring and mentoring services for first-generation, poor and working students.  We are worried about insufficient numbers of critical humanities course offerings, and of faculty of color who can serve as mentors for the students who take them.  "Trickle-down economics” had revealed to us the ways in which ideological and increasingly fictive notions of the universalized public university and its liberal-humanistic imperatives mask late liberal capitalist university development and its negative ramifications for its racialized and gendered subjects.

In the end, we left the conference reeling from the burdensome weight of the universalist, liberal-humanist tradition of the University of California, established in 1868.  We will address this issue in a future post.


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