On the University of California, III: Newfield on “Pushing the Crisis Around”

The following guest post by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is reposted from his Remaking the University blog.  It is the third in a series on the University of California (UC) system, the nation’s premier public research institution. Previous posts in the series are here and here.

Stop Pushing the Crisis Around: Setting Goals at UC Berkeley and UCSB

BY CHRIS NEWFIELD

Is there a post-crisis recovery for UC and its university kin?  So far, not so much.  At this blog, we’ve been forced to chronicle permanent austerity.  The long-term problem was confirmed this week by a Public Policy Institute of California report that reviews the public funding cuts of the past several decades at all three segments of higher education in the state.  (If you are just tuning in, Hank Reichman has a helpful overview of the PPIC and State Auditor reports, and of editorials decrying the long-term state disinvestment.)  There’s no news in the PPIC report for our readers, and the Senate “Futures Report” on the UC budget identified the same trends ten years ago.  But it’s good to know the cuts word is now spread around.

So the question is, what are Sacramento or Oakland [location of the UC Office of the President] or local campus administrations going to do about it this time?   How about some focused goals for rebuilding?  Could we set some goals?  For example, could we say, “no students sitting on the steps in any lecture hall anywhere at UC by Fall 2018?” This is the first step towards where UC needs to go.

To end bottlenecks and then get to the real upgrades, we’re going to need to end our current UC spin cycle.  The cycle is Problem–KludgeDrift–Crisis–Pushdown.   Push the crisis down to the lower levels.  And repeat.  The cycle isn’t addressed but is enabled by the marketing and public relations crusades to which UC has become so prone (e.g., Prof. Reichman and Bob Samuels on the recently-revealed UC Davis effort to scrub the pepperspray incident from Internet search results.)   Some of our problem is money. Some of it is how we bury our problems as fast as we can.

Step 1 is to face the fact that we can’t just keep postponing the repair jobs.  Our time is up.  We have been watching the cram down of publics to a lower functional level for a couple of decades, and have long watched the cuts widening the gap between them and their private university cousins.   Chronic underfunding has seriously damaged the public research university core, which is Instruction and Research.  As the same problems stay unsolved year after year, the public on whom we count to fund the rebuilding decreasingly believes in the quality of the former, and has been blinded to the costs of the latter. Polls show that large majorities of the public want strong public universities (80% in the March PPIC poll, page 21).  But they are not convinced that public university quality has been maintained, or that research is a major cost in which state taxpayers must share.

I see declining faith in UC quality in occasional media reports and in the comments of UC students, particularly those who have friends or family at comparable private colleges. I see it in low take rates of UC admits.  Systemwide data show that all non-flagship campuses need to admit five students for every one that actually comes.  We often focus on the gigantic and growing number of UC applicants or on the proportion of UC applicants who end up on some UC campus (43.5%).  But if we look at each campus as a distinct university, we might wonder at the low percentage who think that specific UC campus is the best educational choice for them.  The non-flagship UC may be serving as the world’s biggest safety school for the top 1/8th of high school graduates.

In addition to public skepticism, universities face powerful commercial and political forces that want to unbundle them into training pathways that can be separately monetized.  This would mean dumping the infrastructure that integrates the curriculum–and that supports research. This week’s ritual Chronicle of Higher Education query, “should universities exist?” appears as an interview with the economist Tyler Cowen, who ponders whether universities are different from anything else and why professors aren’t more like bloggers.  In reality, the answers to such questions aren’t that tough. Universities do integrative instruction across disciplines and methods like nothing else. They conduct indispensable, money-losing research like no other institution is willing to do.  With teaching, public universities need to show Active Learning + Individual Feedback –> Cognitive Gain.  I’m being simplistic, but you get the direction.  And yet our publicity hides the problem rather than inspiring progress.

Step 2 is to anchor every single institutional change in a clear positive goal.  We have an unfortunate wealth of examples of not doing this. Nearly eight years after the financial crisis hit, Berkeley’s chancellor described a structural deficit that would force permanent restructuring on top of the continuous search for savings of the past decade (see Section 4).  This week, he announced that 500 jobs would be eliminated, totaling about 6% of the campus workforce. Faculty, who are excepted from these reductions, attended a forum in which bad news was stirred but no gains were imagined. One gain from “realignment” would be to move staff from the managerial peripherals back to the educational core. But unless there’s a goal to do this, kludging and drifting will mean more pushing of cuts down to students and faculty and frontline staff.

This history can be seen in Charles Schwartz’s recent update of UC costs, based on new detail from UC’s Corporate Personnel System  He found that even after 2008, the main growth areas are “Senior Professionals” and “M10-Managers,” particularly in functions that appear to be controlled by the higher administration (“Institutional Support”).   (Individual campus charts are here;  Prof. Reichman discusses the Auditor’s different claim that aggregate administrative costs were flat between 2006 and 2012.)  Drift and pushdown place the cuts in frontline Instruction and Research, and spare the upper-middle categories that have grown the most.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but so far realignment is destined to offer more of the same.

All change must include the upgrade, though this isn’t easy to do.  Another example comes in the form of a UCSB memo issued by the Executive Vice Chancellor and divisional Senate chair and bearing the subject line, “Planning for Increased Enrollment, 2016-17” (Attachment 1).  It noted the additional resident students President Napolitano had agreed to accept (5000 systemwide next year via a 15% increase in UC-wide admissions, and a possible 5000 in the two years following).  It said that UCSB needed to find an additional 2700 seats per quarter starting this fall, and asked faculty to be more flexible than ever in accepting non-prime time assignments for their courses.

So far so good. I’d already gotten a registrar notice about their failure to place 50 courses by the third draft of the fall schedule.  I’d heard about a plan to give incoming students better pass times so they wouldn’t be shut out of lower-division courses by juniors and seniors. These are examples of important operational problems that need solving.  But I was optimistic: since I’ve been teaching large lectures on the swing shift for years, I assumed the registrar could find the classrooms and offer enough sections–especially if the deans granted our full TA budget requests, which they had not done last year.  And it’s always good for faculty to learn more about the back-office issues faced by staff.

But by the time I read the memo, I’d received a dozen irritated reactions to this memo from faculty across campus.  Most referenced this paragraph:

Departments should consider such strategies as offering multiple iterations of impacted courses, deploying lecturers and graduate student instructors strategically to cover the maximum number of needed courses and sections, and experimenting with innovative formats for lectures and sections. There may be opportunities (consistent with Academic Senate policies and contractual obligations governing workload) to organize instruction in alternative formats, including the further integration of on-line components. In select cases, when appropriate and within policy, student peer review and the judicious use of some advanced undergraduate instructors might supplement instruction by faculty and graduate student instructors. It also may be possible to recall some emeriti to teach high-impact courses.

This was an alarming list of the “innovations” of the miserable year of 2009, in which most departments were forced to teach lectures without sections, to convert essays into multiple-choice exams, eliminate senior seminars from their requirements, cut smaller courses even if they were intellectually central, and so on. These were mostly abandoned as soon as we could afford to do so, since faculty felt they lowered quality and students gave them bad reviews.  As for online teaching, hybrid courses –mixtures of online and face-to-face–can be very good, but versions that raise quality don’t save money at all.  (Read online pioneer Candace Thille on the subject, or my analysis of the costs of the Georgia Tech-Udacity online masters program.)   Colleagues from all disciplines were especially annoyed at the idea of peer-grading for undergraduates.  Peer-to-peer learning is of course central to the seminar format and is quite valuable, but only in the context of faculty-structured courses that include expert review of student work.  From the student perspective, if going to UCSB grading will mean your paper is reviewed by the student sitting next to you, you might as well start UCSB Co-Op College in Isla Vista and get your student-graded higher learning for free.

Why such a dismal message?  Was the enrollment “surge” going to wash us away?  I decided to check. UCSB has just under 11% of UC’s resident undergraduate total (using pulldown menus), which puts its share of the New 5000 at about 550 new students.  UCSB’s Long Range Development Plan already called for adding 5000 students on a 2010 base of 20,000 over 15 years (page A-4; UCSB already had 22,218 headcount students in 2010). Adding 5000 students over 15 years means adding an average of 333 students in every year. So the “surge” means the campus will bring 220 additional students beyond what its LRDP had been planning for anyway. Or maybe we were taking 675 students, based on the 2700 seats, which would be an additional 340 students beyond our LDRP.

How hard would this be? I looked at the enrollment increases of previous years.  I have folded in non-resident students since they didn’t increase as dramatically at UCSB as at other UC campuses.

Figure 1: Annual Changes in Undergraduate Enrollment, UCSB, 2008-2015

Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Total Ugrad 18892 19796 19186 18620 18977 19362 20238 20607
Year On Year 904 -610 -566 357 385 876 369

In 2009, UCSB added 900 students in one year.  In the two-year period 2009-2011, it lost nearly 1200 undergraduates, which created some infrastructure headroom.  After 2011, the campus has added at somewhere between 350 and 400 undergraduates per year, and nearly 900 in 2013-14.  This is a bit above the growth rate planned in the LRDP. The Napolitano 550 (or 675) for UCSB is 150-350 beyond recent average increases, and less than the campus handled the year before last.  It is also in the neighborhood of the 300 Nonresident International students the campus enrolled in each of the last two years.

In other words, we could see the surge as getting us two years of LRDP growth in the space of one. We could focus on translating it into a quality upgrade.  The memo noted the Santa Barbara campus’s popularity with applicants.  More students won’t overwhelm us. They won’t burden us.  All our campuses do need to fix big things: senior managers need to keep president Napolitano from making bad deals and pushing the costs down.  They need to get full costs for new students and not the current $5000.  But in the process, UC needs to keep focused among other things on how desperately it needs to be raising the quality of learning. It needs to be building its popular base by giving UC students the education they way they want when we actually ask them— the ability to get into the courses, and later, individualized advising, sequenced, coherent majors, coordinated distribution requirements, and exposure to research.

So the problems are obvious, but we can only fix them with the continuous creation of full-scale rebuilding goals. The subject line should be, “Planning for Better Instruction and Research, 2016-17.”  It should note, wow we’re in such a healthy sector of endless demand: let’s do some new fun things with the surge.

One thought on “On the University of California, III: Newfield on “Pushing the Crisis Around”

  1. Pingback: On the University of California, V: Gutting Accountability? | ACADEME BLOG

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don't impersonate a real person.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s