Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What UC Does, and Why We Are Less Able to Do IT

Dear colleagues in European Studies,

The three-day meeting of the Board of Regents has started today, and there have been many documents circulating on this list and elsewhere from UCOP (University of California Office of the President) and other sources that have invoked the dangers posed by the current budget crisis to UC’s “core mission” without specifying what that mission is or has been. Even concrete counter proposals to President Yudof’s Plan, which, understandably, have focused on rethinking funding structures, revenue streams, and equity in salary cuts and their allocation, have pretty much done so without engaging with this larger framework let alone with the context of recent California history that has led to the current crisis.
This omission and the lengthy but flawed report on the crisis in the on-line journal Inside Higher Ed posted yesterday, together with exchanges with colleagues, have prompted the following reflections.
In my view the UC’s “core mission” is first and foremost one of public service: educating California’s students in multiple literacies through the investigation of nature, the comparative study of past and present societies and cultures, and apprenticeships in the arts of self-reflection, analysis, and creative thinking. As someone trained in the humanities but who has collaborated closely with social scientists for 20 years in science studies and European studies I am all too aware that UC as a state institution of research and teaching is many things and serves many purposes but it nonetheless has worked under the imperative to serve the public good and, as George Lakoff has put it, to empower citizens. Speaking simply as a scholar and teacher in the humanities, allow me to add that humanistic modes of inquiry make vital contributions by providing historical, comparative, and critical analyses that are important for addressing the world's scientific, economic and political dilemmas; and that in contributing to the intellectual and ethical formation of citizens the humanities participate along with their sister divisions in this larger mission of public service.
The UC mission of providing access for California’s students to university education of the highest quality has been virtually unique in the United States. It is the legacy of a public education system that was once highly ranked from elementary school through college. However, this legacy is unraveling and has been fraying badly since 1978 when Proposition 13 was passed defunding primary and secondary education in the state (to the tune of some $50 billion in the first 5 years). Now California is ranked near the bottom in the nation in terms of the proportion of its students going on to college.
As I’ve said previously, it would appear that the fallout from Prop 13 has finally caught up with UC. Political deals struck by UCOP with Sacramento over the last 10 years agreeing to tuition raises in return for promises of future state support have collapsed. It would seem that UCOP’s commitment to high-quality public education has collapsed as well: our new president came to UC with the project of introducing exit exams into undergraduate education and with it the culture of teaching to tests that have lowered the level of teaching in secondary school systems nationwide. Moreover, UCOP has exploited its restructuration to move to eliminate UC-wide support for the precious opportunity for students to spend substantial time abroad (more than one quarter) becoming literate in cultures and languages other than their own. Meaningfully long experience abroad now risks now being restricted ever more to those who can pay for it out of pocket. Finally, the readiness of UCOP to cut staff and faculty salaries and raise tuition (with no strategic plan for the future) and the lack of entrepreneurship in finding other resources within UC and the state do not inspire confidence in its understanding of and commitment to UC’s “core mission” of public service. UC is now poised to abandon its long-standing charge of offering its diverse population the best that higher education has to offer in the way of the transmission of knowledge and values and the multiple literacies of nature, the historical past, and contemporary globalizing cultures.

Roddey Reid
Professor of French Studies
Chair, European Studies, UCSD


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