In which I panic

I was put the finishing touches on the introduction to the collection when I saw an article in the June 1st New York Times that gave me chills.  It’s about how the already financially beleaguered university systems in California (University of California, California State University, and the community colleges) are facing even more budget cuts if the governor’s tax plan is not passed by voters.

In response to the idiotic screed the Chronicle of Higher Education let Naomi Schaefer Riley post on their website, I had written a sentence that felt a bit strident and panicked:

“I predict that the increased scrutiny on how higher education spends it resources will dovetail with the increasing backlash against ethnic studies and put such programs at risk as institutions determine that they can no longer afford diversity.”

More than being upset by her rant (she has virtually no institutional power and I figured she’d be held to sharp account for being careless and unthinking), I viewed it as an id-ridden version of more muted resistances to ethnic studies.  It seemed to me an expression of the attitudes that threaten the stability of ethnic studies and, by extension, a pretty large swath of faculty of color by people who do have institutional power: faculty who vote on what kind of specialists to hire, personnel committees, deans, provosts, etc.

I was deciding whether or not to leave the strident sentence in when I read The NYTimes piece and, in particular, this sentence:

Jon Coupal, the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which strongly opposes the proposed tax increase, said the colleges should do more to show they are cutting spending, like reducing pay for top administrators or closing programs that do not directly benefit the state.

“We’ve had the luxury in prior years of heavily subsidizing colleges,” Mr. Coupal said. “But like anything in California, the delivery of higher education is not performance based. They’ve created new campuses and programs based on politics and not need.”

Almost everything about the statement is anxiety producing.

First Jon Coupal is listed as, “the principal drafter of Proposition 218.”  Here’s a summary of its goals:

Proposition 218 is a major measure with significant implications for local governments, property owners, businesses, and California residents.

The measure would restrict local government’s ability to raise most forms of revenue. This restriction would result in lower payments by individuals and businesses to local government–and less spending for local public services.

Proposition 218’s (1) requirement that many existing fees, assessments and taxes be recalculated and submitted to a vote, (2) expansion of the initiative powers, and (3) shift of burden of proof in lawsuits challenging fee and assessment amounts all serve to increase local residents’ direct control over local government finances, but decrease the certainty in local government finance.

“Public services” include public schools and universities.  Coupal talks about the “luxury” of subsidizing higher education and then he gets to the heart of it: “They’ve created new campuses and programs based on politics and not need.”

That statement should make anyone who cares about diversity in higher education–in the composition of the faculty and in its curriculum very nervous.  “Directly benefit the state” is the kind of language that all humanities professor should be nervous about.  It’s the kind of language that led to the dismantling of several humanities departments at the State University of New York, Albany.

“Programs based on politics” is usually code for ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and GLBT studies.

It was particularly unnerving to read the article as read Nathan I. Huggins essay in Inclusive Scholarship: Developing Black Studies in the United States (A 25th Anniversary Retrospective of Ford Foundation Grant Making 1982-2007). In it he explains how a focus on higher education primarily as training for professions threatened the stability of humanities curriculum:

Public institutions, most having land-grant origins, from the beginning had appealed to their legislatures for funds by citing their immediate contribution to agriculture, mining, and business.  They had always found it easy to design undergraduate curricula that allowed students to avoid “useless” courses in the humanities.  In the postwar period, however, even prestigious universities tolerated an erosion of the liberal arts core.” (21)

He is describing the late 60s and early 70s, a time that marks the rise of Black Studies.  This notion of utility is cropping up again, and this time the protests will happen in the voting booth, at a time when the country is particularly anxious about anything that reflects, represents, or refers to race.

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Filed under Politics, Race and Tenure Op-Ed

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