• August 28, 2015

U. of California Cuts: a Faculty Member's Dispatch From the Front Lines

Budget cuts at the University of California have generated a lot of attention, especially after a plan of across-the-board salary cuts, combined with mandatory furlough days, was recently announced. How will such drastic financial measures threaten the strengths of that system and other large public universities? Are certain fields of study in the humanities and social sciences especially vulnerable to state cuts because those areas of inquiry—even when dealing with topics of broad importance—rarely get large infusions of national, foundation, or corporate monies of the sort that routinely support work done in areas such as engineering and medicine?

One way to begin to answer such big questions is to consider a specific case with which I am intimately familiar: that of modern Chinese history and closely related fields (e.g., literary and political studies of the country) as they have developed within the University of California system. I have had a long and varied relationship with that system, having received degrees from two of its campuses (Santa Cruz and Berkeley), taught at two others (a one-year visiting position at San Diego, now a permanent one at Irvine), and given public talks or participated in outreach events at three more (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Davis).

There are many distinctive things about the study of China, a country whose importance to America and indeed the world has never seemed greater, as evidenced most recently by President Obama's statement earlier this week, at the start of a series of high-level bilateral talks, that the "relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." There are also distinctive things about the University of California, such as its size and prominence—as well as about the budget crisis currently affecting it, which is unusually severe and has gotten a good deal of news-media attention. And yet, a close look at the current strength but also vulnerability of modern Chinese studies at the university offers a cautionary tale with relevance for many other areas of study and many other institutions.

Two things have often been overlooked in coverage of the California crisis. One is how scholarship in fields like history and political science—for which Nobel Prizes aren't given and big grants generally aren't received—has contributed to the system's reputation and overall excellence. Another is how the University of California works as a system, not just a cluster of separate campuses. A quick look at the area I know best, modern Chinese studies, illustrates those two often-ignored parts of the story. Here are some basic facts worth pondering:

  • When officials at the World Bank wanted advice on China recently, one person they called was a colleague of mine at the University of California at Irvine, the economic historian Kenneth Pomeranz, inviting him to come brief them. But if budget cuts like those happening now had hit earlier, he might have been working somewhere else, since several colleges had tried to recruit him in the preceding decade.
  • When the Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on Chinese human-rights issues in June, two people they brought to Washington were from the University of California: Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific Affairs at San Diego, and Perry Link, a specialist in East Asian studies at Riverside. Had the 2009 cuts come earlier, they would have been bringing Link from New Jersey, not California; one of the most talked-about developments in Chinese studies in recent years was Riverside hiring him away from Princeton University.
  • When members of the Association for Asian Studies select a vice president this fall (who will become the president automatically the following year), one of the two candidates on the ballot will be Gail Hershatter, a Chinese historian from the University of California at Santa Cruz. But it's unclear whether Hershatter would be listed as a University of California faculty member if financing levels had fallen sooner, since a few years ago a private university tried to recruit her.

Berkeley and UCLA have long placed Chinese-history graduate students in plum jobs, and sometimes the Davis campus (where a former president of the Association for Asian Studies, Susan Mann, teaches Chinese history) has done so as well. Recently, however, good tenure-track posts have gone to people who got their doctorates from other campuses in the system, like Irvine (we recently placed a student at the University of Hawaii), Santa Cruz (they placed one at Pomona College), and Santa Barbara (one of their graduates teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The big success story here, however, has been San Diego. Private fund raising helped it rise to a powerhouse in the field, but so, too, did its administrators' ability to move quickly—as they couldn't do now at a time of partial and full hiring freezes—to create new positions and replace departing faculty members in Chinese history.

In addition to teaching undergraduates, training graduate students, and doing specialized research and writing, China specialists at the University of California are actively involved in many kinds of public-outreach activities, including online ventures that help journalists and policy makers keep up with and understand developments in China. They include the China Digital Times Web site (run by Xiao Qiang of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism), the Chinapol e-mail list (founded by the UCLA political scientist Richard Baum), the AsiaMedia online magazine (also based at UCLA), and the China Beat (a group blog that was established 18 months ago at Irvine by faculty members and graduate students in the history department).

I read the China Digital Times nearly every day, am a member of Chinapol, and have written for AsiaMedia, but I don't know enough about how they operate to say if they will suffer in the new budget climate. I do know, however, that one co-founder of China Beat would not be at Irvine now if the institution had been hit by cuts a few years earlier. One crucial factor in my family's decision to move here was that, thanks to the campus's enlightened partner-hire program (since suspended as a belt-tightening measure), my wife, a librarian, was guaranteed a professional job that was roughly comparable to that she had to give up at Indiana University at Bloomington.

These tales may seem specific to individual University of California campuses. And in a sense they are, since recruitment and retention of faculty members, for example, often do come down to issues that are handled at each campus—like levels of graduate-student support, money for research and salary, and partner hires and budget lines to hire colleagues in specialized fields. Still, many systemwide factors figure significantly in all of the stories that I've sketched out.

One thing that has made people in my field eager to join the University of California system—or, in cases such as those of Pomeranz and Hershatter, has worked against them leaving when courted by other universities—is that the system's libraries have extraordinary holdings in Chinese studies and materials can circulate quickly between campuses. Another is the systemwide Pacific Rim program that supports faculty and graduate research on China. A third is the University of California Press's stellar Asian-studies list, in which books on China figure prominently.

In addition, doctoral candidates in Chinese history at all the campuses derive short-term educational and sometimes long-term job-market advantages from being able to study with faculty members from other campuses, and sometimes even have those scholars serve on their dissertation committees. They also benefit in similar ways from participating in an annual systemwide symposium that is run by and for students in their field.

Even with the digital experiments like China Beat, which do not rely on systemwide support, the flow of people between campuses for collective events has often made a difference. Two of the first people we invited to contribute were Angilee Shah, a former managing editor of AsiaMedia whom I met while speaking at a UCLA event, and Matthew Johnson, a graduate student from the San Diego campus who had visited our campus to speak at a symposium.

All of those programs and structures are now at risk. Library-collection budgets have been slashed, and materials are already moving more slowly from campus to campus. Pacific Rim grants are endangered. The university press has been hit hard by declining library budgets nationally that have affected book sales, while its staff members will experience pay cuts. And with money for conferences drying up—no surprise when some faculty members are being limited to four free photocopies per student per class—it's hard to figure out where we'll get the money to hold future workshops of the sort that brought Matthew Johnson here, or even the small sum needed to hold the next systemwide conference for Chinese-history students.

Such stories from one field illustrate—and tales focusing on many other areas would surely reveal the same—many factors beyond pay cuts that are causing deep concern among many University of California faculty members. No one wants to get a smaller paycheck. And furlough days have little real meaning to those of us likely to spend any days "off" doing research, writing articles, drafting letters of recommendation, preparing for classes, or in some cases speaking to school groups or editing online or print publications.

The reduction of salary should, however, turn out to be temporary. We worry most about the permanent damage that could be done if continuing cuts inspire petty squabbling over scarce resources, lead to the end of programs have helped make the University of California great, and ultimately undermine a system that has often been much more than merely the sum of its parts.

The development of modern Chinese studies at the University of California has been unusual in many aspects, but the general contours of the narrative are similar to those of other disciplines that are now strong but would not have become so in a financial situation like today's. Elements of this narrative also surely resonate, even if different in many specific ways, with tales that could be told about other public universities.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. He is author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).


1. _perplexed_ - July 29, 2009 at 04:51 pm

This commentary is right on target; but the saddest fact is that neither California politicans nor citizens care.

2. badger74 - July 29, 2009 at 05:02 pm

What national interest is harmed whether the professor is at a UC school or at Princeton or another school. All the UC poaching of other schools' people has done is increase costs for many schools to retain the faculty they helped develop and supported for many years as they built their name and CV. Time for the worm to turn and maybe some who were stolen away with the promises of more money and lighter teaching loads will return to the schools that helped make them. Seems like Karma to me.

3. psychout - July 30, 2009 at 12:44 am

Terrific practical explanation of what is happening in California. It's easy to overlook the consequences of cost-cutting but the case of Ca. should be instructive as the nation's premier public university system is sytematically dismantled.

4. retiredprof - July 30, 2009 at 08:42 am

Badger74's comments are right on. This entire article is self-serving. In these days of financial distress perhaps we need to look at overlap and how many students are being served. Does the UC really need that many China scholars. Perhaps regionalized schools with specialties would serve the nation better than having each university duplicate what every other university does.

5. jthelin - July 30, 2009 at 09:34 am

Are there any areas or units in the UC system that have been exempted from the salary reductions and/or other programmatic cuts? If so, what are they? On what grounds were they exempted? Thanks John Thelin (MA 1972, PhD 1973 from UC Berkeley) Professor, University of Kentucky

6. _perplexed_ - July 30, 2009 at 11:43 am

Faculty funded entirely on non-state dollars (mainly grant-supported researchers) are exempt from furloughs. Prgrammatic cuts will be decided at the campus level, so it is too soon to tell exactly what will happen, but these programmatic cuts are likely to be strategic rather than scross the board.

7. davi2665 - July 30, 2009 at 11:47 am

Perhaps this budget crisis provides an opportunity for the UC campus to reevaluate their mission and decide what areas of academic endeavor they want to/are able to support. Each campus cannot be all things to all disciplines; many departments are topheavy with faculty who do little teaching and now find themselves scrambling for the holy grail- grant support. The UC systemshould take this opportunity to follow the adage of our surgical colleagues- a chance to cut is a chance to cure.

8. jthelin - July 30, 2009 at 01:08 pm

My recollection is that about three years ago UC Berkeley received a large grant from the Hewlett Foundation so that their faculty salaries could remain competitive (with nearby friendly rival Stanford, I presume). Is this correct? How much was the grant? Was it from Hewlett Packard? Did it help? Thanks

9. eidgahy - July 30, 2009 at 04:52 pm

Yes, the article both raises critical points and is self-serving at the same time. Not to detract from the needs of UC and their significance, but California is in a terrible and dire situation. The largest public higher education system in the world, California Community Colleges, are bleeding at an alarming rate. As institutions which serve ALL citizens, we must balance EVERYONE's needs with those of the UC system, it's only fair.

10. ausgezeichnet - July 31, 2009 at 12:27 pm

It might be worth putting an immediate end to the notion that all comments by UC faculty about the cuts are somehow "self-serving" and, it follows, invalid. That's a nice way to silence people. Anyone paying close attention to the response to the cuts will see that those speaking out most vociferously against them include some of the University's most distinguished, successful, and senior faculty. These are people who won't be suffering in a major way financially from the cuts and who are near retirement. They should be listened to, not dismissed as self-interested. I work in a Berkeley department--top-ranked nationally--where our budget for supplies (Xeroxing, stationary, etc.) has now been reduced to 0. Phones have been removed from our offices (can't afford them) and our main office is closing for large parts of each day. I fail to see how wanting to be able to serve the students (and thus the State) adequately, is "self-serving."

11. eidgahy - July 31, 2009 at 12:40 pm

It is simply too easy to take one phrase 'self-serving' out of the entire comments made. It would be far more productive to emphasize "we must balance EVERYONE's needs with those of the UC system, it's only fair". I am certain every individual reading these comments can come up with numerous examples of hardships in their local departments or colleges; but we are ALL in this together. And as for serving the students (thus the State), California community colleges serve many times more students that both California public university systems combined; so let's be realistic.

12. boiler - August 02, 2009 at 08:57 am

This is the problem with the celebrity culture that's developed in academia over the past couple of decades. The author's worry is that budget cuts will destroy his program's ability to hire academic superstars -- people whose value is determined, in large part, by the willingness of top universities to bid extraordinary amounts for their services. But the loss of that ability won't actually do much damage to the scholarship at the university. There's not actually a shortage of terrific Chinese studies scholars, if the number of them on the unemployment line is any guide. Had the university not made the hires the author describes, they would have hired other people, who would have done a fine job. What would have suffered would simply have been prestige, ranking in the self-reinforcing world of universities that rate themselves by their number of famous faculty. Why not use these budget cuts to think about another model for excellence, one that focuses on the content and structure of scholarship rather than the marquee value of particular faculty members?

13. ucprof - August 04, 2009 at 04:00 am

Try recruiting top junior faculty at a department without top senior faculty - the difference between recruiting at a top 5 vs. top 25 department is dramatic. I know because I've witnessed both. Moreover in science and engineering, the top faculty are the same ones who are most likely to obtain highly competitive federal funding - money that supports a lot of PhD students and undergraduate research. In these fields money and scholarship go hand in hand - you can not do a lot of the cutting edge research without funding for equipment, students, lab techs, etc. And yes this comment is `self-serving' but also one that is aimed at preserving all that is special about the Univ. of CA, starting with the nobel prize winners, national academy members and the like. These people serve as role models to young faculty and the students, and many `celebrity faculty' work extremely long hours despite their celebrity status - bringing resources to the university that far outweigh their costs to the general fund.

14. johnga1949 - August 04, 2009 at 09:57 am

Clearly, the budget problem facing California are deep and go far beyond higher education. When you have a state where 144,000 people at the very top pay nearly 50% of the state income taxes, then the "Ponzi" scheme will have to fall one day. This is a time for Californians to reassess what they want from government based on how much they are willing to pay. Unfortunately, it does seem that the average citizen failed to take basic civics courses in high school. That is, they want more and more from government while paying less and less. It doesn't take a PhD to figure out that this cannot persist. The example of the university is just one small example of scenarios throughout the state.

15. boiler - August 05, 2009 at 12:00 pm

The comments by ucprof are the ones always dragged out to justify celebrity hires -- that they help attract top junior faculty and grad students, and that they bring in lots of grants. The latter is certainly true in science and engineering, but not in most other parts of the university. In the liberal arts, only a handful of grants provide for grad student support, and almost none support major equipment. I sincerely doubt that UC administrators are going to target their cuts at the fields that produce major grant funding. And as for the advantages of hiring as a "top 5" rather than a "top 25" school -- that is indeed a nice luxury to have. But given that only five schools in the country have it, surely it's possible to manage without it. Given the paucity of jobs at research 1 institutions, it's unrealistic to think that you won't be able to find an excellent junior candidate with what UC will still have to offer. I do share the author's regard and concern for the UC system, and in an ideal world it would be wonderful to operate it like Harvard or Yale. But California is in a crisis. The state is cutting back drastically on services, and it's going to mean poor people going without healthcare, families living on the streets, public schools operating on skeleton crews. In such an environment, the idea of operating UC that way is unrealistic and almost immoral. In the face of that, finding an alternative to the star system in hiring seems like a sensible strategy.

16. _perplexed_ - August 05, 2009 at 12:21 pm

In the larger scheme of things, it is hard to disagree with "boiler", but I'm still with "ucprof", who clearly understands that the day UC backs off its efforts to be first-rate, it will become third-rate.

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