Letters to the Editor

U. of California's Problem Is Unreliable State Support

May 02, 2010

To the Editor:

In "The Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit" (The Chronicle, March 21), Robert N. Watson makes the case that the humanities pay their own way and then some at American universities. But Mr. Watson, an English professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, misinterpreted some remarks by me in a media interview.

When I told a television audience that a "core problem" the University of California faces is "who is going to pay the salary of the English department," my point was that the state's chronic underfunding of our public-university system has put more pressure on disciplines and departments that cannot rely on outside revenue streams, unlike, say, our hospitals and research laboratories.

This is not a question of priorities, but of stubborn, fiscal reality. Medical centers can generate sufficient amounts of operating funds through patient care, researchers can support their work with federal grants, but by and large these are not fungible dollars that can be redistributed to the core instructional departments, including the humanities. These departments must depend on two funding streams—taxpayer dollars and student fees. And for 20 years now, the State of California has been an unreliable partner, reducing in real dollars its support for each full-time-equivalent student by half.

This is the problem.

My reference to English departments, as I suspect Professor Watson understands, was offered only as an example. I previously have made references in this context to a generic "Portuguese department." I could just as easily have invoked freshman sociology. But let me be clear: In no way did I intend to denigrate professors of English, or Portuguese, or sociology, or those in any discipline that cannot count of heavy infusions of federal research dollars, health-insurance payouts, and the like.

We are a sprawling, complex institution, with many "businesses"—as I sometimes put it, for simplicity's sake, to outside audiences—but the core of our mission is to provide world class education to Californians. And the humanities are an essential element of that endeavor. As the product of a liberal-arts education myself, I would think this goes without saying; I belabor the obvious only because Professor Watson raised it.

And, as did Professor Watson, I have long made the case that, with undergraduates all paying the same fees, the humanities indeed can be seen as cross-subsidizing science, engineering, and similar departments. Because of laboratory needs, the compensation markets that govern faculty salaries in these fields, and other factors, these latter disciplines simply are more expensive to operate. This is why nearly half of America's universities differentiate their fees according to discipline.

I might also address the skepticism expressed by Professor Watson about the ongoing UC Commission of the Future as it explores options for the long term—including ways to better support the liberal arts and humanities. While he questions the commission's capacity for empathy toward his point of view, it should be noted that representatives from the humanities have been assigned to the working groups responsible for developing recommendations. This was done to balance against the fact that seats on the Commission were given to elected faculty senate leaders, and humanists are underrepresented in that group.

Finally, while I agree with Professor Watson that "we are all in this leaking, listing ship together," I would have chosen less pessimistic language. In nearly a century and a half of service to the state it grew up with, the University of California has stood as a shining monument to opportunity and excellence. It has weathered many crises, some even more threatening than what confronts us today. We can and will make it to safe harbor again, but the passage will be far less difficult if we don't pull against ourselves from within.  

Mark G. Yudof
University of California
Oakland, Calif.