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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

We Need UC Uncut

What the state really needs is UC Uncut  - not UC down another $500 million next year on top of previous rounds of similar cuts.  For the twenty years that I have been in the system, UC has steadily squeezed undergraduate instruction, with the effect of herding students into huge lectures and relying on the testing of passively acquired knowledge because it couldn't or wouldn't spend its resources on the small-scale forms of active learning in the tutorials and seminars that the world associates with US higher education because that kind of active learning-to-create happens at Harvard and Reed and Occidental and Stanford.  UC's nominal student-faculty ratio of 17:1 or 20.7:1 or whatever it is in a given chopping-block year has meant in actual practice offering one seminar of 20.7:1 to each major over the course of four years. What students are largely getting instead are 35-student courses that now have 70-80 students in them, 400 person lectures with 1 TA for every 100 students instead of for 50 or 25, and the near total absence of individual mentoring by a regular faculty member.

This latter is a special tragedy for a public university that does not take its students exclusively from the ranks of the top few percent of test takers on the international scale. 
Most UC campuses are comprised of up to nearly 1/3 of Pell-eligible students from families with incomes of less than $45,000 a year (UCLA's 30% is triple the Ivy League norm) . Most of the rest of the student body is broadly middle-class, from California public high schools that no longer have courses for special interests in math or art or music or journalism, no longer have courses for the cultivation of the specific genius of people who will create the next economies and the next cultures.  The broad mass of public university students did not get piano lessons and one-on-one tutoring in Spanish and Mandarin, they have not had four years of shop plus mechanical and architectural drawing.  That is what we have public education for - to get everyone to the level where their interests and visions deserve to be. These students have enormous intelligence and energy, and yet we are neglecting them. We are not doing this willingly. We have no choice. We do not have the people and time and infrastructure to bring everyone on line in the global economy and world culture able to do all that they can do.

 I say this on the basis of direct experience. Over the past three years, I have met several times one-on-one with each of over 350 students from nine UC campuses. These are students who have studied in France through UC's Education Abroad Program.  My goal has been to orient them to a different university system, but also to help them develop an individual academic project. Our students are brilliant at checking the boxes of their requirements as required courses get added and subtracted.  They need to be, since signing up for classes means hitting a moving and shrinking target.  These students generally know what their overall topic of interest is. They are also as a group completely inspiring, the most multilingual, international, multiracial, spontaneously democratic, and transformationally-oriented generation I have seen.

But what about the individual academic project that expresses their specific interests and their unique profile? What about the individual project that would allow them to write a statement of purpose to get into grad school or stand out among the 480 other applicants for an internship at UNESCO, or to apply for a job that will develop their talents?  In about three-quarters of the cases, I am the first senior faculty member with whom these students have every had a sustained conversation.  I  estimate that 90% have had no faculty advising on their course of study. They are increasingly unable to get the more focused and advanced courses that would allow them to develop a true expertise in something before they graduate.  Because finding these courses is now so hard, they have no incentive to develop an individual and special program of study that depends on them.

The bitter irony is that this system of deindividualized education is less functional than ever before.  Large public universities took on the obligation of mass quality -- high quality for mass enrollments -- at a time when corporate America would hire intelligent but generically-trained college grads by the hundreds of thousands. They staffed their gigantic multidivisional organizations, which John Kenneth Galbraith called the "technostructure."  These jobs required varying ratios of conformity and creativity, and UC graduates were its prototypical members: bright, cooperative, motivated, possessed of strong foundations for further specialist training through their college combination of a specific major laid on top of general education.

But the technostructure for which State U was preparing its masses of intelligent students has largely disappeared. Since the 1990s, the corporate world has been applying 'knowledge management" to its workforce under various names. The goal of this practice is to find niche geniuses that invent new products which directly impact the bottom line, on whom the company will lavish great working conditions and pay, while squeezing the positions and pay of the broader white-collar workforce, those millions of smart graduates who nonetheless are not "unique" (see Thomas A. Stewart or my Unmaking chapter 8).  For this among other reasons, elite universities are individualizing undergraduate study even more than they already have.  As just one simple example, several years ago M.I.T. "replaced the traditional large introductory [physics]  lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning."  In doing so, M.I.T. reduced the course's failure rate by 50%.

UC is headed in the opposite direction, towards massification and deindividuation.  Lack of financial resources is the number 1 reason why.

We need UC Uncut, and CSU Uncut, and the community colleges uncut.  Accepting the $500 million cut, as UC officials appear to have done, betrays our responsbility to the current generation of California students.


Charles Schwartz said...

This piece is informed,important and, by academic standards, brilliant.

If a great university needs someone called "President", why must it be the likes of M. Yudof rather than C. Newfield?

But, beyond expressing such thoughts, How might we all achieve such a transformation?

Charlie Schwartz

Anonymous said...

Until corporations are forced to pay for education instead of getting tax relief for exploiting grad students and finding every loophole around propriety taxes, using their so called donations to force a 'love science hate humanities ideology' into the curriculum and using Academic Senate as if it was the Supreme Court, punishing professors who exercise their 1st and 14th Amendment rights, higher education will be reduced to one useful function--keeping 18-22 year olds off the streets.

Until UC and CSU Profs take action (blogging is not a substitute), there's more chance of acquiring serious health injuries as a college professor than the cop assigned to the 12a.m. to 7a.m. beat on the NY subways.

Krista said...

Beautifully written, insightful and (sadly) true piece about the state of public higher education.

When I was growing up, my parents encouraged me to go to a UC. They spoke of its value and the fantastic education I would receive. My father, one of six children, extolled the virtues of the UC system and almost all of his siblings received a UC degree. From what he has told me, it certainly seems that when he and his siblings went to college forty-something years ago, the UC education was truly something to value, both for its cost and for its education. While I certainly appreciate the degree I received, I have serious questions as to its value for money; these questions are only heightened when I look at the trend in UC funding...

To be honest, when I attended UCSB, I had very few interactions with my professors. While I discussed paper topics, area interests, and grad school with several of the excellent TA's I had, I had only one such conversation with a professor, the author of this article (at least while I was an undergraduate student). This conversation happened during the last week of classes of my senior year at UCSB, but was one of the best and most productive ones I had during my time as an undergrad student--I only wish it had happened sooner. But this conversation lead to subsequent ones that helped me understand where my interests and goals lay a bit better than before.

At the time, I thought that this lack of faculty advising, the of individual academic projects was simply the norm for undergrad--and perhaps it is in the UC system. But when I went to law school at a private institution and served as a Political Science TA for undergrads, I was astounded by just how many of the juniors and seniors I was teaching had close relationships with professors, had worked on independent projects tailored to their interests, and most of all, just how aware the students were of their individual interests. These students were far more creative than I was as an undergraduate (perhaps more a reflection on me, though I did grow quite a bit in law school through the guidance of some fabulous faculty advisors), a reflection at least in part, in the way they were encouraged to study and think independently rather than simply trying to meet some bizarre combination of A-G requirements, including separate courses from the E-1 and E-2 categories with consecutive courses taken in...

The last course I TAed in, by the way, was an upper division course with 50 students, one professor and two TAs. At UCSB, it was typical to be in a 350 person lecture hall with only 4 TAs, or to take a 40 person seminar with one professor and zero TAs.

My younger brother is a rising high school senior, set to send out his college applications. He faces more obstacles than I did as a high school student: increasingly unaffordable UC tuition, impacted applications at the UCs and CSUs, and rising faculty to student ratios. I've always been a huge proponent of public education because it provides more affordable education for the middle class. But the rising tuition is making the costs less and less affordable (I myself graduated early because the 43% tuition hike while I was a student started making the costs unaffordable) without producing any added benefits for the students. With many private schools heavily endowed and able to provide better financial aid, coupled with more individualized instruction, I have to wonder: where is the benefit of the UC education?

Catherine Liu said...

There are systemic problems with CA public education. Expanding class size, harried public school teachers, punishing standardized testing and winner takes all mentality have all contributed to a kind of demobilization of smart CA students whose parents don't have the money or don't want to send them to private schools. Krista's experience at UCSB and at private institutions is fairly representative, but represents a new refinement of class reproduction in the US.

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