Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Graduate Students Draw Attention to Crisis in Character of University of California

The union representing graduate student instructors at the University of California, members of which are conducting a strike-authorisation vote, issued a report titled Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education.  The report illustrates how a failure to adequately support the union’s 12,000 academic student employees has a knock-on effect on undergraduate education.

This is true because graduate student instructors across the University of California campuses do much of the teaching of undergraduate students.  Take a three-hour lower-division history lecture class at UC Berkeley.  Although the faculty member puts in many hours developing the course, creating the syllabus, and preparing lectures, there are only three hours of teaching done in lecture.  Assuming a class of one hundred students in a department wherein sections are capped at 20 students, there will be five discussion sections, meaning ten hours of additional instruction.  That ten hours of teaching is done by Graduate Student Instructors, who in most cases also do all of the grading of papers and exams for the course.  The larger the course, the greater the portion of the burden assumed by GSIs. 
The character and expectation from discussion sections varies from department to department even within campuses.  But although in some cases sections operate like review sessions, in many GSIs are expected to run them as intensive seminar-style sessions parallel to the lecture.  In other words, much of the learning critical to a successful academic experience is expected to occur within these sessions led by PhD students.  “Sections” are also the venues where students are introduced to the elements of a given field’s methodology, exposure which is expected to accompany an education at a top research university. 
Towards Mediocrity explains that UC increasingly struggles to stay competitive in attracting top graduate students, estimating that a $2,697 funding gap exists between UC and comparable institutions (it rises to $4,978 when California’s high cost of living is factored in).  There are also fewer of these students relative to the number of packed lecture courses, meaning that student-teacher ratios are getting worse.
UC’s response to the pointed criticism?  According to the San Francisco Chronicle, UC spokeswoman dismissed the issue of class-sizes, saying “Issues related to class sizes and quality are academic issues, not bargaining issues”, also claiming that “UC pays student workers more than Stanford, MIT and the University of Texas”.
I’m not sure how workplace conditions (some sections swell to over 30 students) and our ability to honour responsibilities as educators are anything other than a bargaining issue.  And the claim about salaries ignores the extent to which graduate students at other institutions have their salary augmented by generous fellowship funds.
UC administrators and Regents have long fallen back on the defence that constricted funds from the state, rather than any funding source they control, is behind the collapse in support for graduate students, whose career prospects shrink as universities increasingly look to casualise teaching labour, and as departments fail to adjust their PhD intakes to the post-degree job market. 
But Towards Mediocrity demonstrates that although the broader decline of UC is inextricably linked to state funding, what amounts to internal corruption and administrative back-scratching, which have led to the explosion of a cadre of highly-paid administrators, cannot be ignored.
The report claims that “if the top 225 administrators in 2011 gave up their extra compensation and stuck to their salaries (averaging at $335,500), we would save roughly 20 million dollars...Likewise, one could ask why the UC’s upper-level administrative strata has grown 251%--resulting in roughly 1 billion in extra costs—while other sectors have grown 51% over 21 years.  Or why from 2008 to 2011, the number of individuals receiving more than $200,000 in base pay grew by 44 percent”. 
Towards Mediocrity goes on to cite the unseemly UC practise of awarding bonuses, as though it were a corporation instead of an institution of higher learning.  For example, “UCI CEO Terry Belmont took home $775,000 in pay and bonuses in 2011, a 40% increase from what his predecessor received ... David Feinberg, UCLA Hospital CEO, receive[d] nearly $500,000 in bonus pay on top of his $900,000 salary...UCSF Medical Center CEO Mark Laret receive[d] over $300,000 in bonus payments, bringing his total to nearly $1.2 million”.
Californians will look askance on an institution which comes for them asking for money to perform its public service function when its leadership is squandering money on executive pay.  Students will have to question why, when very real divestment by the state of California forces UC to make hard choices about its priorities, top administrators get raises and bonuses, and whole new levels of bureaucracy dedicated to eliminating “inefficiencies” emerge, while students are asked to pay higher fees.
I’m no fan of Jerry Brown, but the Governor was absolutely right to decry salary increases as being out of step “within the spirit of servant leadership that I believe will be required”.  The Regents defend their fraudulent behaviour by saying that such salaries are necessary to attract the best and the brightest.
But what we’re getting are a class of parasitic administrators who drain the same University that struggles to attract the best and brightest faculty and graduate students—that is, the people who actually do the work of a University, teaching and research. 
As UC Berkeley formally inaugurates its new Chancellor—himself the recipient of an unseemly pay raise—at the same time that the UC’s new President continues her “listening tour”, academic leadership at the University of California should try to free itself from the grip of those who would turn California’s prize institution into a grubby little marketplace.  Those academic leaders should instead reorient themselves towards the students who comprise the core of our community, and towards the people who work to ensure that those students emerge from our wonderful institutions with the tools they need to face a world and society in crisis.
 Fiat Lux.

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