Friday, October 23, 2009

why public higher education is a good idea
or not, depending

The CSU has been taken over by an administration that does not understand or care about the unique mission of public higher education. They see education as a privilege, and therefore see it as properly allocated according to who can pay more for it. Public higher education, on this view, is only worth whatever dregs the public deigns to spend on it. And if the public - like here in California - denies funding, this must mean that university funding isn't worth the public's money. Instead, public institutions should do more with less. The only educational value these administrators understand is the maximization of cost-efficiency.

First of all, maximum cost efficiency is not an educational value. The best education is neither the cheapest nor the one that generates the most graduates for the least cost. This is as useless a standard of education as overall grade-point average, because in either case, the outcome you're measuring has nothing to do with the quality of education.

But as a recent comment has it, quality of education is best determined not by standards of rigor established by faculty with field expertise. Quality of education is best determined by cost-efficiency. Let's recap that argument one more time: The appropriate way to judge the quality of university education is not to judge the quality of university education but to ask whether the university graduates people cheaply.

I won't belabor this point further, nor spend any more time unpacking the rest of this. It's making quite a stir among faculty across the CSU, because it basically explains the playbook for dismantling the CSU. This is why I wanted to have someone at the rally holding a sign that depicted one of our buildings burnt to the ground, with a Phoenix rising from its ashes. (I know - too conceptual. That's always been my fatal flaw as a creative artist.)

Maybe the question is more fundamental. On some level, what is being challenged is not just the way public education is done, but whether there should be any such thing as public university education.

The main reason I think public higher education is a right of citizens is because I believe in the social justice of equal opportunities for people to make good lives for themselves. The CSU was built to serve the educational needs of people who would never be able to afford private university education. The rationale for opening education to a larger populace made sense in 1960 and continues to do so now, I think: a well-educated public serves the public's interest.

One - indeed primary - way public university education serves the public's interest is economic. A well-educated worker generally earns more, and therefore contributes more to the economy through taxes, but in particular through spending. All told, we know, every dollar spent on the CSU is repaid to the state more than 4 times. It makes no economic sense at all not to fund public higher education. And yet, there is a large group of citizens in California and across the US who see public funding as government waste. I should hope more government programs would be as wasteful as one that generates a 400% return on investment.

On this basis, this narrow, mercenary, blinkeredly-fiscal basis, public funding for higher education is a benefit to the entire public. Current executive administration of the CSU basically denies this, for reasons they can't articulate, because they haven't got any. They don't make the case. They say, instead, that there's no money. When they are urged to pursue more public money, and use this argument to make the case, they say, instead, that there's no money. Funding to the CSU has been cut repeatedly this decade - in years of economic growth as well as decline - and every single time, CSU execs have shrugged and said there's just no money there.

The question that puzzles so many of us is, why? Why would you not fund a program that repays so handsomely? Why would our administrators fail to make this case?

I think the answer is implied in the comment linked above, in particular, the notion that higher education is a privilege, not a right. This basic denial of the social justice of public funding for higher education is the key to this. It's not a matter of serving the public good at all, but expressly of denying the public this good. Why do that, other than to redirect these economic goods into the hands of fewer and fewer people?

It may boil down to such a pecuniary interest. But the public's interest in education is not only economic. Public education serves a social and political good as well. It's true that educated people generate more economic activity, because of the economic value of their knowledge and skill. Educated people are more economically efficient, when considered solely as labor.

The "problem," from one group's standpoint at least, is that education has this side-effect, of helping people develop their own ideas and ways of thinking - critical skills and attitudes for active citizenship. Educated people ask uncomfortable questions about justice in their societies. Yes, so do less well educated people. The difference is that better educated people are also better at analyzing the problems, articulating what is wrong, reasoning out solutions, making the case for these solutions to the public at large. An educated public is socially and political dynamic. More to the point, education has the reputation of leading people to be more progressive politically.

The attack on the CSU is a two-pronged attack on the class of people who increasingly resemble peasants in our society: it undermines their opportunities for economic advancement (denying access, saddling them with school debt), and it undermines their opportunities for political and social understanding, activism, or resistance. De-funding public higher education is a terrific way to consolidate economic and political power for those who already have it.

And this gutting of the peasant class' last best hope for making their lives better is sold to them on the basis of the notion that they can't afford to fund it. It seems pretty obvious to me that we can't afford not to fund it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

save our classes rally

We had a pretty damn good rally, for our little politically-inert campus. We think around 150-200 people showed up, the speeches were good, the crowd was inspired. We got 150 or so cards signed urging support for AB 656 (an oil severance tax to help fund higher education), and I think over 100 letters to our campus president.

I was emceeing, so when a couple of my organizing pals suggested turning the rally into a march, I had to be the one to start that. So I suggested going for a walk over by the administration building. On the way, we started chanting "No more budget cuts! Save our classes!" It sounded good. The problem, I realized, is that there's no way around the building - access on the east side is cut off by a fence. The easiest and most direct way to get from the south side of the building back to the center of campus (where we started from) is to walk through the middle of the building - through the cavernous mall-like promenade, on either side of which three stories of administrative offices rise and loom. So I decided to invite the crowd to come see the interior of the administration building, and they decided they would keep shouting, all the way through the building. That was fun.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

depressed? oppressed?

On Friday I was talking with a friend on campus about my lack-of-employment prospects at the university. As happens, the topic of the general condition of the university came up. My friend said the university is suffering from depression.

This struck me two conflicting ways. On the one hand, it's as good a diagnosis as any for the overall malaise and incredibly low morale among faculty and staff. Budget cuts, hostile relations between administration and other constituencies on campus, strategic efforts to divide and to cast a pall of doubt, confusion, and mistrust - all of this has had the predictably effect of making most people who are aware of the situation despair. In public meetings about the situation, most faculty and staff are dumbstruck. No, strike that. Most faculty and staff don't go to these public meetings, because most of them, though aware of the terrible straits we're in, are paralyzed with fear, or with whatever it is that convinces them to keep blinders on, do their work, and imagine that their quiet acquiescence will keep them safe.

They do what they do because they feel they have to do it, to avoid the repercussions they have heard of or witnessed others suffering for standing up a little. This makes sense, because most people don't want to be yelled at by people with more power than they have, and almost no one really wants to be fired. Subjectively, they may not feel themselves to be depressed at all - nor perhaps fearful, over-stressed, or over-worked.

But if we accept the premise that an organization can have a general level of well-being, and that, as a complex system, it can have a set of attributes constituted by the interactions of its members, then the university could be depressed, even if a handful of individual faculty or staff (or administrators) aren't depressed themselves - and more to the point, even if they don't recognize the organization's depression.

I ran a quick Google search this morning trying to find something cogent written about this phenomenon, with no real luck. (I'm not particularly interested in organizational change in response to the Great Depression, for instance.) What I did find was a checklist of symptoms, causes, and treatments written by a "corporate coach," which in many respects doesn't apply to universities.

That led to my second reaction, which is to remember that the whole notion of a corporate organization having attributes of this sort is linked to the ideology of the corporation being a person - that dangerous legal fiction so central to US corporate law.* Diagnosing the university as depressed, taking that systematic view, psychologizing and even medicalizing the situation, shifts this discourse in ways that are a little disturbing. For one thing, they offer a rationale for avoiding political confrontation that might in the end be our best hope.

What if, unlike human beings suffering depression, this diagnosis misidentifies what is better called oppression? The two conditions call for two very different reactions, I believe. Depression calls for treatment - pharmaceutical, cognitive, psychotherapeutic, electro-shock, instituionalization,... - to make the patient better. Depression treatments in the capitalist medical context are inextricably linked to an ideology of individual responsibility and productivity, in service to capital accumulation. Why cure it for the sake of maintaining the status quo of economic and political relations? Oppression calls for resistance, developing solidarity and power, direct action and regime change.

I suppose most oppressed people suffer depression. But a lot is at stake in identifying whether the cause is institutional "depression" or political oppression.

*(And now, part of me is considering the ways in which the human person is an anthropocentric fiction which is employed across many disciplines for assigning attributes, especially praiseworthy and blameworthy ones, to the complex organizations we are. For an individual human person, depression is a felt subjective condition and orientation to the world, but it's not clear to me that the neurons and chemical reactions in my brain experience themselves as depressed, and I'm not sure what it means to the teeming bacteria throughout my body or the cells of my body which are not entirely genetically my own.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

new song

This is one of those less and less rare instances of a Paper Cats song I wrote both music and lyrics for. (I'm playing 12-string and electric guitars - double tracked, mind you; Lauren is, of course, singing.)

To The Sunrise

I was caught in a tangle
of twilight and daydreams
spending myself
on just getting by
doesn't the wind
sound lonely tonight?

The more that I looked back
the more that I stumbled
and mumbled myself
and forgot to look up
doesn't the wind
sound sadly tonight?


maybe the garden will grow us
a flower


The more that I looked back
the more that I stumbled
and mumbled myself
and forgot to look up
doesn't the wind
sound sadly tonight?

But nobody's watching
and nobody cares
and nobody matters
and nobody's here
wouldn't the wind
hold you closely tonight?


maybe the garden will grow us
a flower
maybe the sunrise will give us
a day

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

job search begins

Having heard from my interim department chair that, by current plans handed down by college deans, there will be no work in the department for me next year. So I'm looking for work. I hate that.

I looked through the American Philosophical Association's Jobs for Philosophers publication this afternoon. It didn't take long. I found 5 jobs I have a reasonable fit for, and 4 of them where I might actually be considered, perhaps.

I never wanted to come to California. I didn't like the Central Valley when I got here, and, truth be told, there's a lot about it not to like. Some crappy things have happened to me here, too.

But through the years, especially the past 6 or so, I've fallen in love with my campus, and with California, and of course with Lauren, and this has made being here not merely tolerable, but a life worth living. Now, I don't want to leave California. I may not have the choice. In academia, you get to choose what you get your degree in, you get some choice of what you study, a little choice of what you teach, but virtually no choice where you live.

Dusted off my CV a bit this afternoon, too. Surprisingly, it's mainly up to date. I don't seem to have a letter of application anywhere, so tomorrow I'll be writing that up. Ugh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

the awesome leadership of Governor Schwarzenegger

Yesterday, after threatening for weeks not to sign any bills because the legislature wasn't passing a bill he wanted, Governor Schwarzenegger finally acted on the 700 bills on his desk. Demonstrating the kind of political courage only he could, he vetoed SB 86 and SB 218, despite their broad bipartisan support. Clearly, Schwarzenegger will not follow political fads by signing bills just because they are politically popular.

Indeed, in this case, the bills were wildly popular. SB 218 passed the state Assembly and Senate with only 1 negative vote! But the Governor looked at it and realized how wrong it would be. SB 218 would have required the California State University - the largest publicly-funded university system in the world - to inform the public what it does with public funds. Specifically, it would have required CFA administrations to inform the public of the balances, investments, and amounts of money in their "foundations" - which is the public-university version of an endowment.

SB 86, which also received wide support, would have prohibited the CSU from giving raises to executives in years when the CSU budget is cut. Again, Schwarzenegger vetoed this wrong-headed bill, despite its popularity, since it would have prevented the CSU from rewarding administrators for making the hard decisions we pay administrators big bucks to make (in this case, the hard decision to pay administrators more big bucks).

Schwarzenegger was elected in the Gray Davis recall debacle on the promise of reforming government. He's certainly done that. This set of reforms sets a clear precedent for CSU execs, one consistent with the Governor's political ideology. Public university administrators, like their counterparts in corporate America, are an elite class a royal class, whose actions should never be overseen or regulated by the public their subjects. The only political principle, and the only acknowledged concept of governance, is their privilege to rule over their fiefdoms without let or hindrance.

I think I know who's getting my next furlough letter.

Friday, October 09, 2009


Yesterday we went to a meeting called by the academic senate executive committee to discuss collegiality, civility, and shared governance. To the dismay of some faculty there, two administrators showed up. Some felt that put a chill on discussion. (In the free speech world, a "chilling effect" is second to "prior restraint" in the list of speech-limitation no-nos.)

I don't think I learned much about collegiality, civility or shared governance, and I don't think the administrators there did, either. There was a little, exceedingly polite, venting of frustration with the way shared governance is being practiced (or not practiced) on the campus.

One thing I did notice was the uneven distribution of faculty representation at the meeting. The colleges of business administration and of humanities and social sciences were over-represented, compared to their population on campus, I think, and for certain the colleges of natural science, art, human and health sciences, and education were under-represented. (No one from art or education.)

I'm left with a question about what the attendance means. Fatigue? Morale so low these faculty don't believe there's any hope? Misrecognition? Lack of legitimacy of current faculty leadership (this one's hard to believe given the overwhelming votes in support of faculty leadership as recently as the fall general faculty meeting)? Fear of reprisals?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

one thing

It's been quite a while since I added an item to my ongoing series

Doc Nagel's Top 100 Things

11. Melons. I just love 'em.

This morning I cut open what will likely be our last melon of the season. It's a small, "seedless" watermelon. It's been in storage a while, I can tell, because it's not as bright, the flesh isn't as clean and smooth, and there's just a hint of the beginning of fermentation in the sugar. Still, a good, sweet watermelon, on October 4, is nothing to dismiss.

I believe there are more than a dozen common melon varieties, many hybrids created from the basic melons. As a kid, I knew two, and only two: cantaloupe (which my mom always called "musk melon") and watermelon. I didn't encounter honeydew until I was in college. My favorite has always been watermelon. In fact, I don't understand people not liking watermelon. They make me wonder.

Lately, we've been alternating melons: watermelon one week, cantaloupe the next, then another watermelon, an orange flesh melon (which I think is a cantaloupe/honeydew hybrid), then watermelon, then a sharlyn, then another watermelon,... Occasionally, we'll grab the odd canary or crenshaw, or even a yellow watermelon.

One of the best things to do with melon is to cut them open, scrape the seeds out (of the "true melons"), and stuff your face with them. Another good thing to do is to carve them with a melon baller, then wrap each ball of melon with prosciutto, put them on a stick, and drizzle them with a reduction of good balsamic vinegar, a little sugar, and perhaps something like ruby port (all reduced to a thick syrup). Then stuff your face with them.

10. Fruit stands. I just love 'em.

Our local favorite fruit stand has already undergone its annual metamorphosis from summer fruit-a-rama-thon to pumpkin oasis, which is the first signal that they'll be closed for the season all too soon. We stop by for fruit generally twice a week from May to October, and essentially don't buy fruit from anywhere else except a farmers' market during that period. Then the bastards shutter up and go away from Halloween on, and we enter that dark, desperate period during which we plod hopelessly up and down the produce aisles, looking for anything that resembles actual food.

But don't cry for us, those of you living in climates that don't grow fresh fruits and vegetables for roughly 10 months of the year (except that, really, we can grow vegetables the other 2 months, too). We make do, somehow, with our recent memories of fruits gone by.

Ah, watermelon! We hardly knew ye!