Blog Post

The Crisis at the University of California

Lately, I've been trying to educate myself on the way that public higher education works, particularly at the University of California where I teach.

Except for my master's degree, which I obtained from the University of Michigan, and a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley (UCB), my life has been spent at private universities: undergraduate at Yale, doctoral degree from Harvard, and then Wellesley College for my first job.  I'm now in my third year at UCLA, and as many people have heard, the state contribution to the UC system will be reduced by about 20% (some $813 million).  Where will most of these cuts be implemented?  Well, there is the graduated furlough plan, which cuts some faculty and staff salaries from 4% to 10% (those which salaries completely funded by outside grants will not be furloughed; those with partial funding from outside grants will face a proportional reduction).  The Office of the President (UCOP) has targeted $190 million in savings from this cut. 

What's not immediately clear is how much in savings this furlough plan will net. Calls for transparency in the budget calculations have gone unheeded by the administration, resulting in a sense of overall crisis without any understanding of what alternatives still exist.  UCOP calls for "shared sacrifice," which most faculty and staff are willing to shoulder, and as a result, has assumed emergency powers (henceforth, "J1").  It's hard not to wonder to what extent this particular sacrifice is necessary when the only rationale offered is that we are in a state of emergency.  How does one argue against the rhetoric of emergency without access to all the information, to all the numbers? 

So, Charlie Schwartz has provided an estimate of the numbers, based on 2008 numbers.  And when an estimate of the numbers are crunched, the result doesn't quite match up with the official account.  Schwartz, a retired professor of physics from UCB, has been trying to make sense of UC campus finances for some time.  According to Schwartz, if one takes 7% reduction, one gets savings of $670 million.  Subtract from this the targeted $190 million that UCOP is trying to save, and this leaves a $480 million "surplus."  Schwartz notes that $132 million are restricted funds, and so this leaves some $348 million that isn't accounted for in UCOP's plan. Where does this money go?  No one knows.  

Okay, so what else?  There are also some questions of legality that have been raised by the Council of UC Faculty Associations (CUCFA) regarding the UC Regents' approval of J1, which was implemented in order to secure the implementation of the furlough plan (henceforth "J2").  CUCFA specifically charged that (1) sufficient notice of J1 had not been given, contravening an earlier standing order; and (2) adopting J1 would not mean J2 could be adopted.  In response to a legal communication from CUCFA to the Regents, the Regents' lawyer responded that (1) sufficient notice had been given, but that the earlier standing order would be amended nevertheless; and (2) even if UCOP did not have the authority under J1 to implement J2, it "inherently" had the authority to do so even if J1 had not be adopted.  CUCFA then followed up with this report, drafted by Robert Meister.  Well.  Not only are the Regents giving UCOP the power to declare a state of emergency in order to implement the salary reductions, it is also saying that UCOP doesn't need these powers to do so.  Meister, a professor of political philosophy at UC Santa Cruz), knows full well that there are odd echoes of Carl Schmitt here. This is how Schmitt defined the sovereign: "Sovereign is he who decides upon the exception" (in George Schwab's translation, published by MIT Press, 1985).  For Schmitt, the sovereign both embodies the juridical system and is above it.  He may declare a state of emergency, but in truth, the sovereign always exists in a state of emergency because those powers define him—are inherent to his place as sovereign.  One such drastic step has been to issue letters of layoff to all state-funded lecturers in anticipation that there will be another, even worse round of cuts to the UC budget for 2010-11.  Divisonal heads are hopeful that this order will be rescinded, but again, without a full picture of the budget, what is there but the state of emergency?

Where does this leave us? One good thing that has come out of all the agonizing and anxiety is a renewed sense of faculty outrage and activism.  If shared faculty governance is just so much window dressing, as Marc Bousquet has been arguing—most recently, here—then perhaps what is needed is a return to true faculty governance.  But that would take community organizing on a large scale and an assumption of actual participation in campus operations. Faculty like to think of themselves as citizens of the university, not employees, because of the promise of shared governance.  But I think that Bousquet is right—there isn't really shared governance because we've ceded our responsibilities for administration to an executive class that has different goals (cost-cutting! efficiency! self-supporting units!) than what has been the goals of the core academic campuses.  We are employees.  If we want to be citizens, then we need to assume responsibility for how the university actually works.

Jack Chen's picture
Jack Chen is Associate Professor of Chinese Poetry and Thought at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has studied at Yale, University of Michigan, and Harvard.  His research interests focus primarily on medieval Chinese literature, with an emphasis in poetry (though he is finding himself reading a lot of anecdotal literature lately).  His first book, The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2010, and he has published essays on imperial poetry, gossip and historiography, and the representation of reading in medieval China.  is at work on a second book on the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age) and an edited volume on gossip in traditional China.