• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Thursday, July 30, 2020

by Amie Campos, PhD Candidate, History 

Simeon Man, Associate Professor, History 

Rihan Yeh, Associate Professor, Anthropology 

On the morning of June 15th, approximately 200 Housing, Dining, and Hospitality workers at UC San Diego were given notices of “temporary layoffs.” Those who were at work that day were instructed by management to meet at a cafeteria, with a promise of free lunch. Citing a 90% drop in students on campus, management told the majority-Spanish-speaking workforce - via a management-appointed translator - that they would be laid off for the rest of the summer. They were handed some information, including a sheet on how to apply for unemployment, and dismissed with written assurances that they would be returned to their jobs in early September. Lunch, unsurprisingly, was never served.

This move came just two weeks after Chancellor Pradeep Khosla’s to the university community denouncing the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — a message that included a promise of “doing what can be done within our institution to make sure everyone feels that they belong and that they matter.” This juxtaposition reveals the unwillingness of the university to put its money where its mouth is. It has chosen a path that leaves 200 workers and their families, from low-income communities of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, without income for at least 2 months.

In a public statement regarding this mass firing, the university characterized the layoffs as inevitable. We should not be misled into accepting this austerity narrative. AFSCME, the union representing the majority of the affected workers, released its research findings based on publicly-available UC financial statements on May 18th. This report showed that the UC system can leverage its vast resources and stellar credit standing to lead California’s economic recovery by maintaining employment for its 227,000 workers rather than pursuing cuts. UCOP has not refuted AFSCME’s claims about usable reserves. Further undermining the austerity narrative,

the university advertised temporary positions in dining services following the layoffs. At the May 20 Regents meeting on “Projected COVID-19 Impact on 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 Revenue,” UC’s Chief Financial Officer Paul Jenny also presented a variety of options for weathering the COVID-19 financial storm, including dipping into the endowment’s unrestricted funds and applying for low-interest federal loans through the CARES Act at different campuses.

Without evidence that the University will face financial hardship if it does not enact layoffs, UCSD affiliates should not accept the administration’s chosen course. Dining service workers have an average annual salary of $41,000 -- well below San Diego County’s Area Median Income (AMI). While significant for workers, a two-month layoff has a negligible effect on UCSD’s overall budget. Chancellor Khosla, whose gross salary in 2018 was $477,384, has taken just a 10% pay cut, and the University continues to employ over 600 people whose regular payexceeds $200,000.

UCSD’s treatment of its workers also exposes the dangerous assumptions and inequities embedded in its much-publicized “Return to Learn” program. The majority of laid-off workers have been working on campus on rotating shifts throughout the pandemic, serving students who could not leave and staff who could not work from home. Yet since the university began its ambitious pilot plan in May to test all students on campus prior to the official start of “Return to Learn” in the fall quarter, UCSD has not offered its workers ample opportunities for free testing, nor has it provided them with adequate PPE or regular COVID-related training. Many workers have had to take precautionary measures themselves, in the absence of clear protocols or guidelines from supervisors, and have for months been worried about being exposed to the virus on campus and bringing it home to their families. The university’s demonstrated disregard for the health and well-being of its essential workers underscores the view that they are disposable and not part of the “campus community” deemed worthy of protection. This casts further doubt that the university will ensure the safety of other campus workers including students, and faculty as the “Return to Learn” program ramps up.

The effects of these decisions will reinforce existing racial and gender inequalities at UCSD and fly in the face of ongoing organizing by students, faculty, and staff, who demand that administrators address the institution’s own anti-Black, anti-Latinx, and anti-Indigenous realities. A 15-page list of demands issued by the Black Student Union (BSU) on June 22nd, which objects to these layoffs and calls for the defunding of the campus police, is one important example. Another is an op-ed published on July 4th by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS Local 94) titled “We Will Not ‘Return to Earn.’”

We reject the University’s plan to wait until early September to return laid-off workers to campus when they will have to scramble to meet the needs of arriving students. We view the plan as part of a flimsy and unethical strategy of UCSD administration hedging its bets to collect housing deposits from students who are promised a safe campus opening in the fall despite rapidly rising infection rates, while keeping labor costs down and reneging on its rehiring promise in the event that “Return to Learn” is unfeasible.

UCSD must reverse these layoffs, especially given Covid-19's trajectory and disproportionate impact on communities of color in San Diego. The close to 200 Housing and Dining workers and their families are invaluable members of the campus community and should be treated as such. UCSD is a major employer in the San Diego region that holds the livelihoods of many people in its hands. As a research institution, medical center, and major hospital, UCSD depends on labor provided by communities in San Diego, including low-income communities that have served as sites of clinical training, research, and experimentation for UCSD researchers. Reinstating these workers will be a small step in repairing the extractive relationships on which UCSD’s reputation as one of the nation’s top research institutions depend.

How you can support HDH workers: We call on the university to reverse the layoffs. In the meantime, donations can be made to UCSD Mutual Aid’s gofundme page in order to support workers facing financial difficulties. Chancellor Khosla’s office can be reached at 858-534-3135.

A Spanish language version of this piece is here

UCSD North Campus: Photo Credit  Erik Jepsen, Triton May 16, 2019


Monday, July 6, 2020

Monday, July 6, 2020
California is a state with nearly 40 million people (bigger than Canada and Poland, smaller than Algeria and Spain). It had a 2019 Gross State Product of around $3.2 trillion (bigger than India, Great Britain and France, smaller than Germany and Japan).  It has ten research universities with the letters "UC" in front of their place names. Each of those ten universities has a president, though the ten call this president a "chancellor."   Tomorrow, July 7th, the UC Board of Regents will announce their selection for UC president, a kind of president of presidents.  What functions might this new person perform  to avoid being superfluous, or worse, a conduit of oligarchic state policy into the university?

A few come to mind, moving from specific to general. The new president should:

1. Get separate state and federal funding for full Covid-19 mitigation. After two decades of austerity budgets, March-June 2020 losses of  $1.8 billion, and a likely 7 percent cut from the state legislature for 2020-21 (p 43), UC doesn't have the money to open campuses safely. Continuous testing alone could cost around $1 billion a year.  The many other needed changes  would pile costs on top of that.  UC campuses may eventually decide to put fall term (almost) entirely online (they will need to comply with today's ICE rule that international students in all-online programs cannot stay in the United States).  But they shouldn't have the program decision forced by sheer lack of funds for testing, tracing, isolating, and temporary facilities.  The new president will need to seek special Covid-19 funding for at least the two-year period 2020-22.

2. Undo top-down governance.  President Richard Atkinson (1995-2003) was not an organizational democrat, but UCOP rule-giving used to be balanced by new-program funding and distinctive UCOP expertise.  The latter was long ago duplicated on the campuses, and UCOP no longer supports growth or quality upgrades: the underdeveloped Merced campus is Exhibit A, the Riverside campus's medical facility is Exhibit B . . . UCOP never asks the state for enough money to cover the actual costs of combining full access with high quality. Several years of underfunded enrollment increases--the "surge" that President Napolitano negotiated with Jerry Brown and state government--caused serious damage to education on the campuses, but this news, which I and others still regularly try to convey in meetings with UCOP officials, has yet to be received.  Although they are removed from the everyday struggles of the campuses, UCOP monopolizes the University's public image as well as its governmental and financial policy.  Campuses spend quite a bit of time conveying basic information up the chain, with apparently limited success.  The next president will need to restore campus confidence in UCOP's ability to formulate policy that reflects campus needs, rather than trim campuses to fit state policy.

3. Fix the broken funding model.  In the coming years, the University of California needs to do a lot of things: increase racial diversity and equality of outcomes, expand STEM research, fully support social and cultural research, improve undergraduate learning, increase doctoral student pay to relieve rent burden, rebuild a deteriorating physical plant, reverse the adjuncting drift, and close employee pay gaps.  But UC doesn't have the money to do these things. The reason is that the half-privatized funding model doesn't work, and never did.  The only way to make up for low state funding is with massive, unacceptable tuition increases.  The only way to freeze or cut tuition is to increase public funding.  I've written volumes about this, with abundant data, but proof lies not only in the financial critique of privatization but in the policy of the privatizers themselves. The "compact" with UC and CSU devised by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his first finance director, Donna Arduin, cut state funding increases to 2-3 percent per year. But even they knew that neither UC nor CSU could live on that, so the compact required tuition increases of 7-10 percent per year.  Those folks didn't care about UC greatness, but they understood that if they held state funding growth to inflation then UC would need in-state tuition of around $20,000 by this year to keep the place afloat. Today, UC gets about 40 percent per student of its 2001-02 funding, had that kept up with enrollment and state income growth. The next president needs to rebuild the public funding model, not do extend and pretend with the current semi-privatized hybrid. This person will also need to explain that politicians who underfund  public universities are politicians who advance systemic racism.

4. Redefine university education around nonmonetary goals.  A college degree should lead to employment at good wages, but this is the only thing college presidents and politicians have been selling lately.   Economists and policymakers also fixatee on college's impact on upward mobility, which is another version of wage gains.  There are two problems with this.  First, private monetary effects are only a portion of higher ed's total effects, which are mostly social or nonmonetary or both. (Nonmonetary benefits include analytical skill, research findings, and dozens of others.)  So colleges hide most of their benefits behind a rhetorical invisibility cloak, and speak only of money all the time.  Second, the money payoff has never been more uncertain in the postwar era than it is today.  Net monetary gains have become harder and riskier as the cost of a degree goes up and automation and the gig economy chew into the white-collar vocations that seemed impregnable as recently as the 1990s.  Recall Robert Reich's "symbolic-analysts" inheriting the earth, then read Scott Timberg for a good overview of the 2010s in his book subtitled "the killing of the creative class."
The current economy weakens higher ed's financial arguments, but the next president should see this as an opportunity to take the PR eggs out of a shrinking basket, and educate everyone on the non-monetary and social benefits of universities.  The latter are more exciting and gratifying than wages alone, but more to the point, they are more durable in our post-knowledge economy in which universities are building a post-middle class.

Overall, I'm perhaps most sad about how hard it has been for UC folks to feel excited about and confident in the university's future.  Recent presidents have modeled a diminished realism, which has meant accepting less and learning the austerity mindset.  This is obviously at odds with the state and country's self-image as heroic leaders of technological and social progress, but who notices the contradiction anymore?  The Regents further demoralized the UC community by kicking everyone except themselves out of the search process, and making the selection of the next president an expression of their sole ownership of the University.  Then Covid-19 came along, and the immediate reflex was to start planning for cuts. With rare exceptions, administrators did not resist, even for a few days. It's obvious to me that the university, the state, and the country can only spend its way out of this crisis, and that we should spend massively on the things we want, like environmental sustainability, intellectual progress, and social justice. Universities should be central articulators of the solutions.  Do we have it in us? We've spent years just trying to hang on financially while ignoring the stupid slings and arrows politically.  Can we still go really big?  UC needs a president that wants a major role for universities in maximalist social reconstruction-- and will learn from the people of the university how to enable it.

UPDATE JULY 7: My first reaction to the widely-expected announcement that Michael Drake is coming back to UC as president is total relief.  He's an academic. He's an educator. He's a good administrator. He knows how UC works.  He will not require basic education--quite the opposite. He'll be the first president of color of a university whose student body is 27 percent white.   He is  certainly capable of doing the things listed above.

Two other things.  During the financial crisis of 2007-2011, when he was serving as Irvine's chancellor, he told the regents more of the truth about quality decline on campus than did any other officials. In March 2011, he told the Board that "faculty members now spend a great deal of time mitigating damage caused by cuts rather than building for the future. He described the situation of the University as one of slow decay rather than growth. Most effort is focused on protecting the educational path for students; innovation and growth are not being fostered."  He fudged it a bit, and said UC was going from A+ to A, but his statements of struggle and slow decline was a pointed heresy in a rigid, formulaic governing system. It got the regents to pay more attention to the chancellors.

On the other hand, Drake gave up on public funding in the 2000s. He may continue to think, as I wrote at the time, that "the budget shortfalls can be handled with regrettable but nonetheless manageable layoffs that have already taken place. The non-UC reader would think, well they’re tightening their belts and fixing their IT problems and we’ll end up with a UC that gets an A for only $2.5 billion in state funds. There is no screaming on our end that says no it cannot be this way and also no it need not be this way."

Michael Drake is an historic appointment--of a continuity candidate, in a time when continuity won't work, in the minimal sense of keeping UC solvent with an intact workforce.  If he is going to rebuild UC for the future, by doing those things listed above, he will need help and also pressure from faculty, staff, and students beyond anything that has been offered up before. Lots of work to do.