Thursday, October 8, 2009

UCSD Prof Notes Precedent for Drastic Humanities Cuts

This situation is reminding me more and more of what happened while I was at UNSW [University of New South Wales].  When our chair mentioned the "justification of existence" letter that Literature will be obliged to produce, it went from being déja vu to just plain uncanny.  At UNSW, it began with a budget crisis and allocations of state funding that meant humanities would have to take the hardest hit.  Our division of the university, originally called the School of Modern Language Studies, was one of the biggest and most diverse in all of Australia - although not a division dedicated specifically to literary studies (or Comparative Literature), it had in common with our department the comradeship of scholars in all different area studies under one roof, and a cultural studies focus.  When I arrived in 2003, I taught almost exclusively cultural studies and literature courses, as I do here.  Unlike UCSD, my division at UNSW already had language-study merged together with it, but generally the language programs were taught by lecturers and coordinated on a rotating basis by professors, who otherwise didn't have too much to do with language-teaching except to teach upper-level or literature courses.  When the budget crisis hit, at first we were told not to worry, no cuts would be made and nobody would lose their job.  But within a year, a number of lecturers were let go, class sizes were increased, TA's were nearly eliminated, and office budgets were slashed.  The University started to debate the distribution of funds, whether to increase local tuition and recruit more overseas students, and how to capitalize on the University's public image and original "strengths" as a "scientific and technical” university.  A new Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor with backgrounds as corporate CEOs were recruited.  A task force was formed, composed of high-level administrators and senior humanities toadies.  The new Chancellor and the new task force asked the School of Modern Languages submit a letter justifying its existence and speaking to the particular needs of UNSW.   One approach taken in responding to this request was to look at other language-and-culture-studies models around the world as examples/justifications.  At the time, a number of people argued passionately that we shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel, or argue for the importance of literature and cultural studies since the fight to "justify" literature and culture studies is as old as the university itself - a battle that could not be won or lost.  

We were asked to produce statistics about class sizes and subject-spreads.  By the second year, the central admin declared that the School of Modern Language Studies would be "restructured" and it was renamed the "School of Languages and Linguistics."   Based on several (?) years' of enrollment records, admin. decided to cut any courses with enrollments of fewer than 20 students.  Language-teaching proved to be most profitable (of course) based on what Australians called the "bums on seats" method of calculating a class's value, so the language-program was expanded - but, they cut expensive lecturers and asked professors to do more of it instead.  By the time I left UNSW in 2007, I was teaching mostly language courses (along with everyone else, although it varied).  Cultural Studies courses had to be approved by the administration and risked being cancelled after the term had already begun if there weren't enough enrollments; professors had to advertise the classes and try to attract students in advance of the enrollment period or try to create classes modeled closely on those that had high enrollments in other departments.  Area-studies groups with low enrollments were let go or moved to other departments (for example the Russianists were let go and the Russian major dissolved).  There was a huge brain drain:  everyone who could leave, left; and some simply quit altogether.  In all of this, the literature and culture studies side of the humanities suffered extra; history, sociology, media studies fared better due to good connections (some would argue), to better enrollments in film courses, and/or to some “scientific” justification for the social sciences.

I can't help but think this latest request for justification of the Department's existence is basically just a pro-forma prelude to an all-out gutting of the Department (I hope I'm wrong).  But I'm sure that statistics about enrollments will play a major role (if they haven't already) in determining our Department's future, and that using such data will put smaller area-studies groups at risk of being phased out or rolled into another program.  If we do merge with languages, I wouldn't be surprised if the same sort of thing happens that happened at UNSW, although the infrastructure was arguably already in place at UNSW while it is not, here:  language classes will always be profitable (and justifiable) at UCSD and I doubt they'd be threatened, but to save money, the University could fire non-tenured language-teachers and reallocate Literature professors to do that work (I'm not saying this is bad, just a frustrating misuse of our talents and training, not to mention a great divergence from the job description!).  Of course it's been a long time and I wasn't directly involved in the process (except for gathering some data about Literature departments around the world) and I'm sure there were many compromises made and many disasters averted.  But from the "user" perspective, I see strong parallels.

But don't mind me.  Sorry for the rant.  I'm just concerned that we are not really being asked for a "justification" but rather that the justification is merely a document on the way to a complete restructuring, as I experienced first-hand in Oz.


Anonymous said...

I've taught language and culture studies in Australia, and it's important to note that the situation described here, however grim, does NOT represent a general situation for all Australian language and humanities. In fact, if anything, Australian public education initiatives often far surpass our own and could provide excellent models. Larissa

Anonymous said...

Stop justifications and save $3 million @ University of California. Use the worldclass UCB professional faculty and staff to do the work of the $3,000,000 consultants approved by UC President Yudof and hired by UCB Chancellor Birgeneau.

Hasen't anyone at UC and UCB heard that California is in recession!

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