• April 19, 2014

Mad as Hell in California, and Students Should Be, Too

The following essay is adapted from a letter the author wrote to his colleagues and students announcing his resignation from the chairmanship of the creative-writing department at the University of California at Riverside.

 I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, reading in my field, doing research, writing books and articles, reading graduate applications and theses, holding office hours. I didn't pay much attention to the university and its administration. None of us has that luxury anymore. Budget cut after budget cut after budget cut have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made.

Having served in administrative posts for most of the past five years at the University of California at Riverside, I have come to know the budget issues very well. The University of California system, once the envy of the world, is on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world. As of this budget cycle, we are past the tipping point.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California at Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to one of the top 100 universities in the country. A dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts over those years to make it happen: countless hours in search-committee meetings followed by hundreds of thousands of hours of mentoring and reviewing; getting junior faculty financed; and, through tenure, building departments person by person, career by career. The best energies of thousands of people, year in and year out for 50 years.

In less than the four years that it used to take to graduate, this accomplishment is being destroyed.

My department is a great example of the breadth of vision and dogged effort that made Riverside the exceptional place it has been. There are other creative-writing programs in the country, but not a single one anywhere with the range across genres and fields, the breadth of knowledge in world literatures, the diversity of voices, methods, and styles that we have.

And there is not another creative-writing program anywhere—certainly none with our caliber of professors—that is more truly dedicated to its pedagogical mission at every level. I have now taught at every kind of institution—fancy elite universities, small colleges, Big Ten universities, art schools, and universities abroad. I have never been part of a faculty that was this student-centered, this concerned about the educational experience and prospects of its undergraduate and graduate students.

Three years ago, I was offered a job at the University of Southern California, which is much closer to my house and more prestigious as an academic address, and which was offering me more money. Riverside worked hard and did the best it could to try to match the salary, and I stayed. I stayed because I wanted to be part of this project, I wanted to teach a student body that truly represents the community (31 percent of UC-Riverside students are Hispanic, for instance, of whom 85 percent are first-generation college students), students who come not from the richest families in California but from some of the poorest, students who have a greater likelihood than not of coming from immigrant families and from families where English is not the only language spoken at home. I wanted to remain part of one of the greatest democratic experiments in history, the University of California.

If I got that offer today, though, I'm not sure I could turn it down, and, in fact, many people are not turning down outside offers these days. People who have taught here for more than 20 years are now considering going somewhere else, someplace where the future is a bit more certain. These are people who are the best in their fields, and UC-Riverside, and the educational experience at UC-Riverside, is diminished each time this happens. We can't blame them—they have kids of their own to put through college, they have research projects and labs that require money, they know that to teach the most-complex subjects effectively, they need to run seminars with 15 students sitting around the table, not 150.

The budget cuts of recent years and the ones we know for certain are coming next year mean a gross deterioration of our university. Those faculty who do leave for better jobs, or retire, or die in harness, are not being replaced. Staff who leave are not being replaced—the positions of those who are left are simply "reorganized." Students at Riverside are having increasing trouble getting the classes they need to graduate, and many of the classes they get will be crowded beyond responsible limits. Departments are being forced to abandon optimal class-size limits for classes two, three, and five times as large.

The library has virtually stopped buying books. We are on a race to become a mediocre university at best, and if the $500-million of proposed cuts in the university system turns into a billion dollars, as they are now discussing in Sacramento, we will be over. The billion-dollar cut translates into thousands of classes across the system. It means creative-writing workshops with 50 students, or, if we insist on maintaining reasonable workshop size, eight or 10 years to graduation for our majors. It means we will cease to be a real university, and will simply become another community-college-level institution at best. Then, maybe, after a few years, with tuition at $30,000 or $40,000 a year, we can begin the slow, arduous rebuilding into a real university, serving a small fraction of the population we now serve.

Why is this happening? Political demagoguery and corruption. Thirty-five years ago, the University of California received 6.6 percent of the state budget and prisons 3 percent. Now the university gets 2.2 percent and the prison-industrial complex gets 7.4 percent. The Legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it to enrich the people who make a profit from imprisoning the poorest. The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time.

The people in the Legislature understand the value of public higher education. The vast majority of them have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees, all made possible by the legislators who preceded them—and who had more courage.

Today's legislators have adopted a drawbridge position—we got ours, and now we're closing the gates—for a variety of stated reasons, but it is clear that the real reason many do not protect the colleges and universities that made possible their livelihoods and careers is simply this: If they do, they will suffer a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism, the standard price, now, if one stands up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry—the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded. But such intentionality isn't necessary. Shortsighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

The only thing that has a chance of turning this devastation around is student activism. We in higher education cannot spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions the way the prison profiteers or the medical and insurance and aerospace industries do. We need to find other ways to provide a political counterweight. We need to make our voices heard.

As my last act as chair, I wrote to our students, suggesting that their own self-interest should be the catalyst. No matter what happens this year, they will have trouble finding the classes they need, much less the ones they want. And the chance for them to graduate in a reasonable amount of time is already gone. I suggested they think of what this means for their families, their neighbors, their friends, their own kids when they come of age. I suggested they think of what it means that California has reduced its higher-education budget to among the lowest per capita in the nation.

Because of its education system—a system that, until just a few years ago, was considered the best in the world—California had become among the most innovative and significant literary and cultural centers in the country, and because of this education system, too, California had become the economic powerhouse it has been. We had the best educational system because we were willing to pay for it, and our expenditures were among the highest in the nation, too. Those expenditures are now well below the national per capita average (and the national average is itself down). Only a political movement strong enough to buck the corporate money determining our tax policy can change this downward spiral. Only citizens can make it happen.

We at the University of California have been told, from the top, not to expect a return to "the glory days." This year was not the glory days. This year we already have discussion sections that are not discussions, fewer classes, an exploded student/faculty ratio, decimated staff; we are very far from the glory days. One longtime faculty member in sociology told me she had not taught a course with under 80 students in five years. Now that an additional $500-million or $1-billion are getting yanked out of the system, the numbers are easy to predict: She will have no classes with fewer than 120 students.

Students' favorite lecturers will be gone. The class they want won't exist anymore. Teaching assistants will have twice as many students in their sections. Advisers will have 800 or 1,000 students to advise instead of the 300 we all agreed was an absolute maximum two short years ago. This is the end of quality. And why? Because a few very wealthy people are protecting their wealth from taxes, taxes considered reasonable not only everywhere else in the developed world, but also considered reasonable in America until 20 years ago.

I hope the students finally get angry. I hope they get active. I hope hundreds of thousands of them call and write their legislators, get out in the streets, take back their university. Don't, I pleaded with them, don't let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Tom Lutz, editor of the forthcoming Los Angeles Review of Books, is a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.

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