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“Sincerely Yours, The Department Of Miserable Bastards”

July 14, 2009, 3:02 pm

“The partly filled lifeboat standing by about 100 yards away never came back. Why on Earth they never came back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?” Jack B. Thayer, a survivor of RMS Titanic, April, 1912.

Thanks to my colleague Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, I have acquired a link to this letter. It is signed by Andrew Scull, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at the University of California, San Diego and twenty-two of his fellow chairs, including John Marino, the chair of history. English, in my experience often the home of gentler folk, is not a signatory. I don’t see any of the chairs of interdisciplinary programs like Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies either. So that tells you something right there.

Read the letter for yourself and see what you think. True, higher education in California is imperiled by the state budget crisis, and it is a shame. It is a shame because this has been coming for years, as California has built spectacular prisons at great cost to one of the finest public education systems in the nation, if not the world. It is a shame because all bills finally come due, and the mean people of California would rather give up education than incarceration, testing, hunting down undocumented workers, and badgering gay people. It has been coming because the selfish and unrealistic people of California and the even more unrealistic politicians that they have elected have refused, over and over, to raise taxes to appropriate levels to simultaneously maintain their educational system and police the hell out of their state. I have had great sympathy for my colleagues who work all over the California system in recent weeks because of the cuts that were inevitable, and are now bound to hurt even people with good salaries. Focused almost entirely on retaining star faculty and their research grants, the letter fails to mention that many thousands of non-faculty are simply on the street now: as I understand it, Santa Cruz let go over 1000 administrative staff last month. I am, in fact, deeply concerned about those friends wooed to California schools in recent years with large salaries and named chairs that they expected to be the capstone of distinguished careers. Such people may really be on the ledge financially right now (particularly in places like San Diego) with expensive, heavily mortgaged real estate — the resale market for which has crashed — that they still have to pay for with significantly lower salaries.

That said, what are the signatories of this letter concerned about? Why their reputations! And what do they propose as a remedy for a collapsing university in this drastic economic and political crisis? Not taxes. Not decarceration, or an end to the billions spent every year testing students at all levels in California. No. These department chairs suggest, not a reset to the horrendous values that are finally bringing them out of their labs and onto their knees, but an intensification of those values. More elitism! More exclusion! More me, me, me! This includes the following suggestions for remedying the University of California’s budget problems.

Enrolling 500 more out-of-state students every year for the next four years to generate 44 million dollars. In other words, privatize further. Abandon the mission to educate the citizens of California, in favor of educating rich (white?) full-payers who want to go to college near the beach. Two problems here: one is that before four years is up, as I understand it, by getting a new drivers license and registering to vote, these students become in-state students and qualify for the lower tuition. Another issue: who is going to teach these students? Certainly not the signatories of the letter or their distinguished colleagues. Oh – I forgot! I’m such a ninny. Graduate students! Adjuncts!

That the University of California make its commitment to excellence more graphic by emphasizing that its research is more or less funded by corporate America and the Department of Defense. As Scull explains, “the campus could also compile a list of 5‐10 pieces of faculty research in the past decade that have transformed our knowledge and improved human welfare, and supplement that with a similar list of spin‐off corporations and technologies (Qualcomm obviously prominent among them) that have transformed the economy of the region and the state. Again, these lists must be hammered home over and over again, like an annoying advertisement that enters everyone’s consciousness.”

That does sound annoying. And what are specific examples of research that have “improved human welfare”? Funny that Qualcomm sprang to mind immediately, but a specific example related to the public good did not.

And speaking of the commitment to excellence, why should distinguished scholars at the UCSD campus have to take the same pay cut as their less well-paid colleagues in the state system? It seems so unfair, since everyone knows that that UCSD faculty are better, smarter and deserve more than the lesser human beings who teach elsewhere. “Rather than destroying the distinctiveness and excellence at Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD by hiring temporary lecturers to do most of the teaching (and contribute nothing to original research, nothing to our reputation, nothing to the engine of economic growth a first rate research university represents),” Scull writes, “we propose that you urge the President and Regents to acknowledge that UCSC, UCR, and UC Merced are in substantial measure teaching institutions (with some exceptions – programs that have genuinely achieved national and international excellence and thus deserve separate treatment), whose funding levels and budgets should be reorganized to match that reality.”

To put it in plain English for those of you who do not teach at a prestigious flagship, some people (you, for example) suck, other people (they) don’t; hence, it can be determined some faculty have value and others do not. From this we can derive that some faculty are endlessly exploitable and/or can be discarded without any real harm coming to anyone important, such as students.

You are so right, Professor Scull, and I think you should just march right up to Angela Davis and her HisCon friends and tell them that to their faces. The one bright spot in this budget crisis, it seems, is that we can take the gloves off and be honest with each other about how we really feel. But I do want to say — that was one heck of a run-on sentence, and before you row away in your little lifeboat, leaving the rest of the system to paddle around on whatever floats, you might want to get the Chair of the English Department on board.

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