Monday, November 23, 2009

hopeful pessimism

I am a hopeful pessimist. That’s not as self-contradictory as it may seem.

I’ll stipulate some definitions:
An optimist is a person who, in the absence of evidence to demonstrate it, believes a situation will improve. A pessimist is a person who, in the absence of evidence to demonstrate it, believes a situation will worsen. A hopeful person is one who, in the absence of evidence to demonstrate it, believes efforts to improve a situation are worthwhile. A hopeless person is one who, in the absence of evidence to demonstrate it, believes efforts to improve a situation are not worthwhile.

There are hopeless optimists. They believe that efforts to improve a situation are not worthwhile, but that nonetheless the situation will improve. Some libertarians, for instance those who believe in the “invisible hand,” appear to be hopeless optimists. They believe that efforts to improve the situation of impoverished people are not worthwhile, and are in fact destructive, because the only way to improve the situation of impoverished people is to do nothing – the situation will simply improve.

Hopeless pessimists believe that the situation will worsen and that our efforts to improve it are not worthwhile. Some hopeless pessimists believe our efforts are impotent against whatever force is making the situation worsen. Some believe our efforts will only make matters all the worse. A sort of extreme version of the hopeless pessimist believes that we are doomed, and that our efforts to avoid doom only make us more, or more quickly, doomed.

Not me. I’m a hopeful pessimist, on most matters. Ecologically, for instance, I believe we are doomed, but that our efforts to improve the ecological situation, even if they won’t make us less doomed, could make our doom less terrible than it might be. I am extremely pessimistic about California’s near future and the future of the CSU. Indeed, the CSU as it has been known may be doomed. But in this case, I am terribly hopeful (I mean hopeful in a terrible way), because I believe that the efforts of all of us who care about the CSU and about California matter a great deal, and are worthwhile because of the solidarity they create. That solidarity is valuable even if the CSU is doomed.

It’s a good philosophy. It keeps me energetic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

more doom

California faces a $21 billion deficit on top of an already slashed budget this year. First on the list of targets will be higher education.

Somehow, the fact that the state gets a 400% return on its investment in higher education hasn't appealed to supposedly fiscally prudent legislators from the party which claims to be fiscally prudent. Perhaps prison spending is somehow more lucrative? (Which it might be, if you or your friends have lots of money invested in private prison companies the state increasingly contracts with.)

In any case, I'm struck by this a new way this morning. This isn't just a matter of cynically cutting the higher ed budget to punish the more-often-Democratic-voting faculty and graduates of California's colleges. It's also not really a panic reaction to the low revenues.

The Master Plan for California higher education was nothing less than a trust among the citizens of California. It was a commitment to cooperate in support of the future of all of us. In a way, it expressed a moral commitment to lend mutual support to the aspirations of all.

What some have managed to do is so corrupt and distort public dialogue, that no one ever speaks of mutual cooperation or common good any longer (except for crazy academics, apparently). The entirety of political and social life has been reduced in this rhetoric to individual competition and consumption. Mutual regard, cooperative enterprise, social or political solidarity - hell, community - are values that have all but disappeared from public discourse.

I think that dismissing solidarity and cooperation as values and as forms of human social life is ignoring at least half of what human life is about.

The rhetoric that eliminates all consideration of these values calls upon us to treat one another with mutual contempt and suspicion, to disregard one another's humanity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

no confidence

Yesterday the academic senate voted to send a resolution of no confidence in the campus president to a vote of the general faculty. I have little doubt it will pass, but also not much more doubt it will have no real effect. (Like I've written before, higher ed executives in the US are, like their corporate counterparts, essentially unaccountable kleptocratic elites.)

The senate also began consideration of a resolution of censure against the interim provost in response to an editorial he wrote in the local newspaper. It's basically slanderous about faculty.

One of my CFA friends emailed me about it, and I started thinking about the significance of a vote of no confidence. I seem to be in the minority about this, and I'm puzzled about it.

To me, a vote of no confidence in the campus president doesn't seem like that big a deal.

For one thing, campus presidents are people in positions of authority. I don't have respect for authority. I'm unimpressed with titles and suspicious of aspirations to power. The step from that basic attitude to no confidence seems really short to me.

Plus, the vote of no confidence likely won't mean very much, because our campus president has the approval of the chancellor. Charlie will send us a letter like the one he sent to the faculty speaker at Humboldt, but I bet it won't be as polite.

Then again, even if he takes the hint and leaves, he'll only be replaced by someone of a similar magnitude of similar undesirable traits. That's not because there are no good candidates for executive administrative positions out there. It's because there is little will to hire them, especially if they see the mission of higher education in anything but the crudest fiscal terms, or see the faculty as anything but a source of chaos and trouble.

None of which are reasons not to vote no confidence in the campus president. They just don't provide a strong reason to do so.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

death throes

The CSU has been underfunded systemically for a decade or more. The campuses and the academic departments have struggled to make do, hired more contingent faculty like me, and simply had less resources and provided less service to students.

Now the CSU is under direct attack. The attack isn't coming from insane neocons like David Horowitz and his paranoid mob of anti-intellectual zealots (no link - he's unworthy of any attention). It's not coming - at least not directly - from the neocons in the legislature, who have already done their part anyway by assuring that the CSU continues to starve, slowly, to death.

No, this is an attack on the CSU by the CSU. Specifically, an attack on core programs and majors by CSU administrators. At Dominguez Hills, they're running through an accelerated program review, with whole departments on the chopping block. At Pomona, I just found out, they're going to do the same thing, with the criterion that any major with fewer than 150 undergraduate students will be put on the table for discontinuance.

The arbitrariness of the methods demonstrates pretty clearly that the future of the CSU, in these people's hands, is to become just like a for-profit proprietary technical school. They don't understand, don't respect, and will not defend the values of intellectual enterprise, for research or for teaching and learning. It's as our campus prez put it in his infamous Chronicle of Higher Ed piece a couple weeks ago. They view public higher education with any component of rigor, academic integrity, or intellectual reaching, as a privilege that neither the public, nor our students, nor the faculty, have any business expecting.

In addition, it shows how prudent they are. Do they have any reason to believe the new markets they imagine will come to the universities for technical training (rather than proprietary institutions we used to pride ourselves on not resembling)? Not that I can see.

So I'm on the philosophy teaching job market, which means I'm throwing myself to the four winds. I could end up in Buffalo, or Ohio, or British Columbia - anywhere.

That's personally distressing, of course. Being on the philosophy job market is its own kind of torture. But what's even more upsetting is that this is the result of a direct, unnecessary, opportunistic attack on the idea of public higher education, on the pretext of the budget cuts but in practice far more extensive.