Friday, May 27, 2011

A Sober Assessment of our Industry... And a Call to Arms?

There is a letter going around my Facebook right now. It is from Tom Lutz, Chair of Creative Writing at Uni California Riverside. Although we may all have misgivings about the size and breadth of a creative writing department -- do they really need 150 creative writing majors in each class? What will these students do with such a degree? Could they stand to become smaller? -- such questions are not really important in the wake of the education-wide observations made by Dr Lutz.

He focuses on the way California's universities have gone from being a shining beacon of public education to mere shells of their former selves. That round after round of budget cuts, lay-offs, reduced pay, furloughs, canceled fellowships and grants, and empty positions that remain unfilled has pushed the California campuses to the brink in a matter of ten years or less. We all see this happening at our own institutions, if not quite to the scale of California.

At CM, we moan that the consumer model of college isn't working. It is not enough to PAY for an education; you have to learn the skills, too. We hold our students to standards that no longer have any meaning. We work hard and forgo raises. Yet what are we doing about this?

We are a blog of professors. It says so on our blog description. We come from across the country and beyond, as far as I can tell. So what are we doing? What can we do? Lobby government? Inform our students how they are getting short shrift?

Should we stick in our present universities and try to make changes from the position of Dean or Provost or Chancellor or President? Should we unionize across universities and galvanize our adjunct nation? Should we leave en masse?

I have included the (rather long) letter below the jump.

Dear colleagues and students,

After a year and a half as Chair of the department, I am stepping down. Professor Andrew Winer will be taking my place, for which we should all be grateful.

As my last act as Chair, I would like to share with you my sense of the gravity of the situation we face. I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, writing, reading graduate applications and theses, having office hours, reading in my field, doing research. I didn’t pay much attention to the University and its administration. None of us have that luxury anymore. Budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made.

Having served in administrative posts for most of the last five years, I have come to know the budget issues very well. We are now past the tipping point. We are on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California, Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to being one of the top 100 universities in the world. An incredibly dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts by thousands of people over those years to make it happen. In less than the four years it used to take to graduate, it is being destroyed.

Our department is a great example of the breadth of vision and dogged effort that has made Riverside the exceptional place it has been. There are other creative writing programs in the country, but not a single one anywhere with the range across genres and fields, with the breadth of knowledge in world literatures, with the diversity of voices, methods, and styles that we have. And there is not another creative writing program anywhere—and certainly none with our caliber of professors—that is more truly dedicated to its pedagogical mission at every level. The faculty at Princeton is perhaps a bit more famous, but undergraduates there never meet them, much less have access to them in, before, and after class. I have now taught at every kind of school—fancy elite universities, small colleges, Big 10 universities, art schools, and universities abroad. I have never been part of a faculty this student-centered, this concerned about the educational experience and future prospects of its undergraduate and graduate students.

Three years ago I was offered a job at USC, which is much closer to my house, more prestigious as an academic address, and was offering me more money. UCR worked hard and did the best it could to match the salary and I stayed. I stayed because I wanted to be part of this project, I wanted to teach a student body that is over 85% first-generation college students, that comes not from the richest families in California but some of the poorest, a group of students that have a much greater likelihood than not of coming from immigrant families and from families that speak more than English. I wanted to remain part of one of the greatest democratic experiments in history, and certainly one of the few greatest experiments in public education in the history of the human race, the University of California.

If I got that offer today, though, I’m not sure I could turn it down, and in fact, many people are not turning down outside offers these days. There are people who have taught here for more than twenty years considering going somewhere else, somewhere the future is a bit more certain. These are people who are the best in their field—you don’t get such offers unless someone thinks you are among the best in your field—and UCR, and the educational experience at UCR, is diminished each time this happens, each time one of the best of our best leaves for a better job. We can’t blame them—they have kids of their own to put through college, they have research projects that require funding, they know that to teach the most complex subjects effectively, they need to run seminars with 15 students sitting around the table, not 150.

The budget cuts of recent years and the ones we know for certain are coming next year mean a gross deterioration of our school. Those faculty who leave for better jobs are not being replaced. Many of you know Yvonne Howard, who has been the chief administrator for our department since it was founded. This year her job was unceremoniously terminated. Staff people and faculty who retire are not being replaced. Next year students at UCR will have trouble getting the classes they need, and many of the classes they get will be crowded beyond responsible limits. Departments are being forced to abandon optimal class-size limits for classes two, three, and five times that size. The library has virtually stopped buying books. We are on a race to become a mediocre university at best, and if the $500 million of proposed cuts to UC turn into a billion dollars, as they are now discussing in Sacramento, we will be over. The billion dollar cut translates into thousands of classes across the system. It means creative writing workshops with 50 students. It means we will cease to be a real university, and will simply become another community-college-level institution. Then, maybe, after a few years, with tuition at $25,000 or $30,000 a year, we can begin the slow build back into a real university.

Why is this happening? Political demagoguery and corruption. Thirty years ago UC received 9% of the state budget and prisons 3%. Now UC gets 3% and the prison-industrial complex gets 9%. The legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it enrich the people who make a profit from the imprisoning the poorest. The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time. The people in the legislature understand the value of public higher education—the vast majority of them have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees—all made possible by the legislators who preceded them and had more courage. They do not protect the University for a very simple reason: because they risk a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism if they stick up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry, the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded. But such intentionality isn’t necessary. Simple, short-sighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture, without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

The only thing that has a chance of turning this devastation around is student activism. We in higher education cannot spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions the way the prison profiteers or the medical and insurance and aerospace industries do, so we need to find other ways to provide a political counterweight. We need to make our voices heard. For you students, your own self-interest should be the catalyst, as you will, no matter what happens this year, have trouble finding the classes you need, much less than the ones you want, and the chance you will graduate in a reasonable amount of time is already gone. But you should also think of what this means for your families, your neighbors, your friends, your own kids when they come of age. And think what it means if California reduces its higher education budget to the levels of Missouri or West Virginia—we will become like those places. Because of its education system, a system that, until just a few years ago, has always been considered the best in the country, California has been among the most innovative and significant literary and cultural centers in the country, and because of this education system, too, California has been the economic powerhouse it has been—1000 research and development companies a year are formed out of the UC system, for instance, and four UC inventions a week are presented to the patent office. We had the best educational system because we were willing to pay for it, and our expenditures were among the highest in the nation, too. In a few short years we have dropped into the middle in state spending, and we are fast falling even farther. Only a political movement strong enough to buck the corporate money determining our tax policy can change this downward spiral. Only you can make that happen.

We have been told, from the top, not to expect a return to ‘the glory days.’ This year was not the glory days. This year we already have discussion sections that are not discussions, fewer classes, an exploded faculty:student ratio; we are very far from the glory days. Now that either 500 million or 1 billion more dollars are getting yanked out of the system, your favorite lecturer will be gone. The class you wanted won’t exist anymore. Your student advisor will have 800 or 1000 students to advise instead of the 300 we all agreed was an absolute maximum two short years ago. This is the end of quality. And why? Because a few very wealthy people are protecting their wealth from taxes, taxes considered reasonable not only everywhere else in the developed world, but considered reasonable in America until the last 20 years.

I hope you get angry. I hope you get active. Call and write your legislators, get out in the streets, take back your university, don’t let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Tom Lutz

Professor and Chair, Department of Creative Writing


  1. Beautifully written. And the author is right in urging students to take up the torch and demand better. I wish people understood the math behind relieving the rich and the corporations of their tax burden.

    In Canada, the situation is no where near as dire, but sadly, we wait and watch our American neighbours test-drive these asinine right wing movements and then they start creeping up this way after a decade or so. Education (a little) and health care (more so) have been eroding a little more every year here too as private enterprise nudges its way into areas they have no business being in.

  2. Having spent a little time at a "fine" UC I can tell you this guy was pot smoking if he thought that the institution was different 5 years ago (15 perhaps but not 5). I've seen classes of 30 but mostly classes of 120-300. I've seen rampant cheating and huge numbers of courses not taught by permanant faculty. I've seen much better student interaction coming from VAPs and Adjuncts. The day I left the UC system was the like the third for fourth best day of my life. I have fewer students all year than your typical VAP has in one quarter/semester at a UC.

  3. Let me see if I translate this correctly.

    "My school is facing a budget cut because California politicians, almost all democrats in a blue state, are afraid of fiscal conservatives. Why, they are cutting our budgets so much that my school can't match a higher offer to keep me from going to another school. People are choosing to leave a job at UCR for another job. This would mean that my colleagues would be employed at multiple jobs within a single lifetime. Who could live like that? (Well, maybe those yokels in a God forseken place like Missouri.) My school is working under sub-optimum conditions! This is all because greedy people are looking out for their own self interests. Our only hope is that students look out for their own self interests."

    Look, I know things are tough but this is not the way to make an argument.

  4. Ben, I can't for the life of me figure out your point. Lutz point is this: Californians won't raise taxes even with democrats running the state, which is obscene. Not only are the UCs losing their best researchers, but the cuts have created conditions under which it is impossible to educate anyone. Students, now "customers," actually have much more power than faculty to change this (in part because the UCs are going to have to be much more tuition-driven to have a prayer of surviving). How you got whatever it is that you got out of Lutz's piece is beyond me. If you don't give a damn about public education, fine. Rather than show off your cleverness (or whatever it is), step aside for the people who do.

  5. California is already too over taxed. Taxes aren't the solution. UCs, CSUs, adn CCs need to raise their tuition to make ends meet. It's basic budgeting. Your innies need to be greater than your outies. If you are unwilling to sell your boat and your house, then you need to figure out how to big in enough money to afford your lifestyle.

    Basket Weaving 101 at Worst CC is worth more than $25 a credit hour. Just charge what your service is worth. Or at least a half or a third what your service is worth.

  6. Don't pull any muscles jumping to conclusions F&T. You might be surprised to know that I'm quite interested in higher education. In fact, I'm so concerned that I don't want some pompous creative writing proffie making an argument that is more embarrassing to us than helpful. This might appeal to Californians but there are a hell of a lot of people in this country who think California is going bankrupt and that Missouri ain't such a bad place to live.

    To address your point about Californians' dislike of taxes, it's been around since the '70s, far longer than any "tea party racism." Since most of those tax restrictions were by referendum, it might even be said that the people actually wanted those rules to protect themselves because they knew the politicians wouldn't.

    Since you're wondering, I'll explain how I got what I got form his piece.

    Lutz claims that "monied interests" are against his view of reasonable taxation. They are pursuing their own self interest. That's exactly what he calls on students to do.

    He complains that he would no longer be able to resist another offer from USC because - boo hoo - UCR wouldn't be able to match their offer (makes you wonder why they have budget problems). He says that now UCR can't afford optimal class sizes. Well, I'm sorry to report, that lots of people work under less than ideal conditions as the norm and things still work out ok, even pretty good.

    He blames tea party racism (how does racism work into this?), conservatives, curruption and demogaugery (the latter two are always accurate). He doesn't mention underfunded state pensions, immigration, regulation or any other issue that might be hampering California's ability to pay its bills.

    It is a poorly formed argument that would not stand the light of day outside the faculty lounge. Though, I will give Lutz credit. This piece shows that he certainly earns his pay as a creative writer.

  7. I always preferred innies, myself. They just look more neat and tidy, all tucked away. If I, or somebody I loved or even somebody sitting next to me on the subway, had an outie then I'd be afraid that it might get pulled or something and insides might spill all over the place. I know it's not a reasonable fear but it's pretty low on my and my therapist's To Do list.

  8. While I am extremely sympathetic with Professor Lutz's viewpoint, I have to agree with Beaker Ben that the argument is not well made. I found the part about Lutz turning down a job at USC particularly laughable. There is nothing wrong with looking out for your self-interest in your career; negotiating a better salary and conditions of employment does not make you a coldhearted bastard. However, trying to dress up that self-interest as somehow being noble does make you something of a hypocrite. And BTW, California's money problems go back years – anyone remember proposition 13? Since that property tax initiative was passed, the state's education system has never been the same. California's problem is mirrored in the rest of the country; people tend to love the services that big government can provide, but hate the idea of paying for them or the idea that someone else – especially someone different than you – may benefit from them. This is the Tea Party in a nutshell. It's commonplace to hear Americans talk about how much they loathe socialism, but they also seem to have no problem with socialism that benefits themselves personally- you don't see too many tea partiers giving up their Social Security checks. Don't get me wrong; I understand that everyone is a hypocrite to some degree, I just find this example particularly amusing.

  9. I never said CA's tax problems didn't go back years. They do. Prop 13 has a corporate loophole big enough to drive a truck through. And the unfunded pension problem in the UC system has to do with terrible money management. As to the "immigration problem," I'm not touching that one with a ten-foot pole. It wasn't undocumented workers who forced CA to its knees. It was Arnold and his insane borrowing. And yes, I blame the CA electorate for that one.

    Many of us have turned down other, higher-paying jobs because the UC system has historically had good benefits, not because we are noble. Those benefits are being shredded, so off we go, I suppose, if we can. But it's sad. 10 years ago I was proud to work at a UC.

  10. This discussion seems to be at cross purposes:

    Rosencrantz : Fire is hot, therefore water runs downhill.
    Guildenstern: That makes no sense.
    Rosencrantz : What? you think fire is cold? Surely you don't believe water runs uphill!

    I think we agree it's perfectly reasonable to consider moving to a better position. We also probably agree that eduction is going downhill as funding dries up. It's just that the former isn't a very effective argument in support of the latter. If we wouldn't accept this kind of reasoning in a student essay, we don't do ourselves any good if we promote it as an argument for restoring support for education.

    I share Lutz's misery. I just don't find this the call to arms I want to rally behind.

  11. Frog and Toad, I wasn't having a go at you. :) I was just elaborating a bit for the benefit of non-Californians. And you are of course right about the UC system at having been historically attractive for the benefits. The security and benefits were one of the main reasons my proffie father turned down several attractive offers from East Coast R1s over the years (okay, that and the Southern California weather!). My comment regarding being "noble" was not meant to blanket everyone at the UC system, just Lutz, based on his own words. I do think you are a bit off base regarding the Governator being the cause of California's crisis – I think it's much more complex than that, and yes, the strain that undocumented workers/immigrants placed on the system played a part. (And for the record, I support pretty liberal immigration policies – give me your tired, your poor and all that). But again, the financial shenanigans – which occurred on both the state and municipal levels – that landed California in the fiscal chaos it now finds itself in started way before Arnold's tenure. If I had to oversimplify it, I would say it boils down to a combination of long-term financial mismanagement and a refusal to belt tighten when the results of said financial mismanagement began to manifest themselves. And since politicians make their decisions on the basis of being re-elected rather than doing what's right – and who can blame them? It's the inherent weakness of human nature at work – it's not surprising there was not the political will to change the situation. So again, Frog and Toad, you are right to blame the California electorate; it's just that they've been bringing in on themselves over a period of 30 odd years.

    To sum up: People tend to look out for their self-interest rather than the big picture – not surprising. What is surprising is that people seem to be surprised when the collective result of their self-interest has negative effects. In other words, the "invisible hand" doesn't appear to work when it comes to politics.

    I'll get off my soapbox and shut up now.

    PS R&G; well observed!

  12. I was hoping for something a bit more productive here, but I suppose if there were good ideas for taking action of the consumer model of college, they would be swimming around the interwebs already.

    I do think that it's appalling that California cannot raise any taxes without a 2/3 vote. That makes everything incredibly difficult, like paying for life sentences of those who commit three strikes. That policy should not be allowed to pass legislature unless they can afford to pay to imprison 1 out of every 100 Californians (the current rate of imprisonment in Cali).

    If you limit the "innies" you also have to limit the "outies." More ideally, you should be able to legislate higher or lower taxes depending on the needs of the state in any given year, term, or decade.

    But that's why I'll never move to California.

  13. I agree with Academic Monkey. How do we move away from the consumer model and, as a society, value education?
    I also agree with Beaker Ben.
    "Why, they are cutting our budgets so much that my school can't match a higher offer to keep me from going to another school. People are choosing to leave a job at UCR for another job. This would mean that my colleagues would be employed at multiple jobs within a single lifetime. Who could live like that? (Well, maybe those yokels in a God forseken place like Missouri.) My school is working under sub-optimum conditions!"
    Elitism like this doesn't help us.


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