THE BLOG
08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

5 Aspects of the University of California Budget Crisis That Haven't Gotten Enough Attention

The overall California state budget crisis has received a lot of play in the media, some of which has focused on the UC system. And yet, at least from this faculty member's point of view, some key factors of that story-within-the-story have been consistently underplayed or overlooked. My goal here is simply to bring these into view. I hope that doing so may help explain to those with little familiarity with the UC system why there's so much consternation about its future just now among people who have benefited from UC educations, worked at UC campuses in the past, or are currently UC employees. (As someone with a B.A. from UC Santa Cruz and a Berkeley Ph.D., who spent a year teaching at UC San Diego as a visitor, and now has a permanent position at UC Irvine, I fit into all three of these categories.)

Here are five things I wish would be discussed more, both by the press and by those responsible for making the case for UC to legislators and the public at large:

1. The Economic Diversity of the Student Population

Californians should take pride in 6 different UC campuses typically making U.S. News and World Report's list of the country's "Top 50 National Universities," and also feel good about the fact that these campuses score so well within that top tier in educating students from lower income brackets. Using data from 2006 (passed on to me by an economic historian colleague who is better with numbers than I am) that provided a breakdown of percentages of students enrolled at top universities who had received Pell Grants (usually given to families with a total income of less than around $50,000), UC campuses were ranked numbers 1. (UCLA), 2. (Berkeley), 3. (UCSD), 4. (Davis), 5. (Irvine), and 6. (Santa Barbara). The spread among these six UC campuses ran from 37% of the student body being Pell Grant recipients at UCLA to 25% at UCSB; only two other top schools clocked in at over 20%: the University of Florida and the University of Texas-Austin.

2. Faculty Have Meant It When We Have Said We Thought UC Offered Students a Good Deal

Most universities give faculty and staff members some kind of break on college tuition for their children, at least at their own campus and, if it is part of a system, throughout the system. UC does not. And yet, testifying to our sense that UC gives excellent value for money at the regular in-state rate (even after years of sometimes steep fee hikes), prospective faculty and staff recruited from other parts of the country who are parents of young children or teenagers often consider having their offspring simply be UC-eligible (if they do well enough in high school) to be a benefit of taking the job and moving here. (I know that when we contemplated relocating to the state with two teenagers several years ago, my wife and I put the "possibility of the children going to a UC" in the plus column when weighing pros and cons.)

3. Faculty in All Fields Do Widely Varied Things and Not Only Scientists and Members of Professional Schools Do Work that Reaches Beyond the Academy

Many UC humanities and social science faculty members with active research careers combine writing for fellow specialists, teaching undergraduate and graduate students, and serving on committees (all standard parts of our work life), with efforts to communicate what we know to (and learn from or collaborate with) people outside of the university. Some of us are involved in outreach programs that engage with K-12 teachers and students (UCI's "Humanities Out There," which has been ravaged by funding cuts and is struggling to stay alive, is a case in point). Some of us speak at continuing education events, consult with policy makers, give interviews to reporters for local newspapers, and write for general interest periodicals.

Since coming to UCI three years ago, I have done all of these things. For example, I've given a lecture on Chinese religion at a nearby high school, made presentations on modern China for an Elder Hostel group and at an Orange County museum, and answered questions that the U.S. Consul General in Shanghai put to me about whether having an official American presence at that city's upcoming World Expo was important. I've also been interviewed by the Orange County Register, and written articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and both Time and Newsweek magazines. My case may be unusual in the details (in part because there is such widespread interest in China just now), but I can think of several people in my own department alone who work on other parts of the world and could point to a similar mix of activities.

I should also note that, even before I moved here, UC played a role in my becoming involved in one of the activities mentioned above: writing for newspapers. Some of my first opinion pieces were improved greatly by the two main editors at the History News Service, a visionary organization that was started and is still run by James Banner (an independent historian) and Joyce Appleby of UCLA's History Department.

4. The Budget Crunch Didn't Start With the Pay Cuts and Furloughs

The current round of belt-tightening is not just about to start but follows on the heels of a tough year, at least at UCI. On the campus as a whole and especially within some units (the History Department and the School of Humanities as a whole definitely included), we've been living with painful economizing measures for months.

One example is that searches to fill positions that would have been important for students, departments, and sectors of the community beyond the campus have been canceled. A case in point involves the UCI History Department. Well before I arrived three years ago, it had established a national reputation for pioneering a more global approach to the past and having a growing strength in Asian studies. But it had to cut in midstream a search for our first South Asian historian focusing on the long stretch of time that ends with 1800. This search, moreover, was the first in recent memory in any UCI department that specifically focused on a region from which a significant number of Orange County residents have come and to which many more have ancestral ties. (The campus has some excellent South Asianists in different fields, but they were usually hired via searches that were open to specialists working on varied parts of the world.)

Other cuts have involved very basic things that have a direct impact on teaching and the quality of faculty-student interactions. Some UCI professors, for example, have been limited to a few free photocopies per student per class (and I've heard that at least one other UC campus has seen similar measures introduced), and some of us have had to do away with our office phones (to save on what our departments are charged in monthly service).

5. The System Often Works as Much More than the Sum of Its Parts--and World-Class Faculty and Programs are Spread Throughout It, Not Just Clustered at Two or Three "Flagship" Campuses

This is a subject of great importance, especially in the light of a recent letter from more than 20 UCSD department chairs that presents the system, to my mind misleadingly, as neatly divided into three tiers of UC campuses. It suggests that there is top strata of "flagships," which includes not only Berkeley and UCLA but also UCSD and is described as deserving special protection, a middle strata of which Irvine is presumably part (neither it nor UC Santa Barbara nor Davis gets singled out for attention in the letter), and a lower strata of campuses whose closure might need to be contemplated (including my alma mater of UCSC, plus UCR and Merced). The issues involved in this vision of the UC system, which some people with past or present ties to UCSD have already gone on record as finding flawed, are too complex to summarize briefly here. I will, instead, simply refer readers to an essay of mine that focuses largely on how the system works as a system that can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education's website.

That piece does not directly refute the claims of the La Jolla department chairs' letter, but in the examples it gives of how Chinese studies in the UC system has grown strong and now is vulnerable, it describes the varied campuses as mutually interdependent and having much in common. The story of of Chinese studies strengths in the UC system, I suggest, is a tale (and there are surely many others that could be told) of excellence spread from UCSC (where a historian of China is one of two finalists to become the next president of the Association for Asian Studies) and Riverside (whose expertise on Chinese human rights issues was recently solicited by a congressional committee) to UCSD, Berkeley, and UCLA.

I should close by stressing that, like other UC employees, I am well aware that these are trying times for all public services in California, many of which have been hit as hard or harder than has our system. Still, past and present UC students and employees surely deserve to have the best possible case made for our system's importance. And one way to improve public understanding of the University of California, I think, is simply to bring more attention to overlooked issues such as the five emphasized above.