Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Escaping Disaster in Higher Ed

Musicology and ethnomusicology blogs rarely discuss money matters. However, over the last month or so, as many of my former colleagues and students have been protesting the disastrous state of affairs at the University of California system, the silence has been deafening. At a recent meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology which happened at the height of protests UC-wide, I only heard of one scholar mentioning the situation during official business. From merely a musicological and ethnomusicological perspective, the long-term effects on our fields are something that many of us cannot possibly know. The two flagship universities, Berkeley and UCLA, have some of the most celebrated scholars in their respective fields of study. Now take a broader look at the scholarly contributions of the entire UC system and the effects are exponential. Imagine, if you will, what the fields of music study would be like without the scholarly giants at the UC and their academic offspring? It would not be imaginable without the investment of California taxpayers. From a personal perspective, I always felt that I had stumbled onto something special when I learned of the academic powerhouses that resided in Schoenberg Hall (before it was renamed Schoenberg Music Building) during my undergraduate years. I am sure that many of us young and seasoned academics would not exist without the California taxpayer's investment in superior music scholarship even if we never stepped foot on a UC campus. UC faculty permeate our proseminars and undergraduate surveys. What would we be without them?

As news of fee hikes, ballooning class sizes, faculty furloughs and pay cuts, protests, and arrests (numbering over 220 as of this writing) reached me in my small town in Maine, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. I escaped institutional disaster. I attended UCLA as an undergrad when resident fees ranged between $1200 and $1700 per academic quarter and when (shocker!) summer fees were subsidized by the state to help students graduate in a timely manner. My academic loans totals are less than the price of a mid-size sedan. That figure is unimaginable now. As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant when student tutoring was one of the most tapped resources in undergraduate education. Tutoring centers all across the UC have laid off employees to half their desirable size. Tutors, like TAs, are teaching to larger groups where a typical tutoring session can have one tutor teaching to a full classroom. How much learning do you think happens in those settings? I can't imagine grading papers without undergraduate writing support. This is not the quality of education that made California's system the envy of the world. Imagine what California would be like without broad access to quality higher education. How can UC compete for the best students? What if a diverse group of high quality students just stopped attending the UC?

Plenty has been written about UC President Mark Yudof's failed public relations and flat out dishonesty. As a former TA union activist, I have far too much experience with the UC behaving badly when it comes to its relations with the state legislature and the public. (For a recent example, news of UC's record high research income in comparison to postdoc and staff researcher wages come as no surprise. Just yesterday, there was a protest for that: Postdoctoral Researchers Union and staff researchers demonstrated over stalled contract negotiations.) What shocks me is the complete lack of public outrage over these policies. When will the California taxpayers do something? Just last year a staff researcher died over inadequate safety precautions in a lab. What would happen to the state of research if it became too detrimental to one's health and too financially unfeasible a profession to pursue? What would happen if it all just stopped?

Music scholars on the job market like to moan about our dwindling job prospects as public and private institutions alike continue painful hiring freezes (for the record: last year there were 3 tenure-track musicology / ethnomusicology positions in the UC; this year there are none). I am concerned about the other side of the problem: the students public universities are supposed to serve. This last semester, my students have been extremely smart, but they have had far from the diversity of perspectives that the students I taught during my time at UCSD and UCLA had. As educators, we learn from our students. Pricing many of these students out of higher education will have as adverse an effect on the state of our field(s) as cutting jobs or entire departments. What will we do when our students become homogenous? What kind of action will musicology and ethnomusicology take to keep this from happening?