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?


Anonymous said...

"What shocks me is the complete lack of public outrage over these policies."

Get real. In the long list of things Californians are (or ought to be) outraged about, this falls into the negligibly remote bottom.

The work of a university is important, but in times of broad crisis, that work has to be scaled back in order to first cover matters of immediate concern. UC lived very well during the boom years, but made absolutely no contingency plans for the inevitable end of that era and in the face of necessary cuts, more modesty on the part of UC would have surely helped its public image.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Kariann. Higher education in California is, indeed, one of our state's most important commodities. Unlike the person who commented above, I think that the current state of affairs at UC is a matter of "immediate concern," and the only hope for saving the system will come from people speaking up in outrage.

rrb said...

I agree with you too, KG. Having attended a public institution for my master's, I sense the same difference in perspectives that you have witnessed in your undergrads. So, what kind of action do you think we should take?

KG said...

On a grand scale, I do not know. I don't see the AMS or SEM getting involved in anything like this. At this point, that route is not an appropriate channel.
In general our (music-related) academic societies are not very good at dealing with crises and questions of academic labor and budgets. These days, the big discussions related to the crisis in higher ed have to do with jobs for new PhDs. That was a major topic on the AMS discussion list for awhile and huge topic at the SEM President's Round Table at this year's SEM.
We've established that things are bad for PhDs, grad programs and research. I would like to see a shift in rhetoric to the people public universities are supposed to serve, not just job-seekers and research. When we talk about how the loss of diversity threatens intellectual pursuits, our calls for change mean more.
I imagine there are some things that could help on a personal level. If employed by a UC campus, we could serve on committees and get involved in that capacity. If, like me, you feel powerless due to your geographic location, we can, in the very least talk about the consequences for undergraduate learning. The reticence thus far really makes me wonder.