U. of California Cuts: a Faculty Member's Dispatch From the Front Lines

July 29, 2009

Budget cuts at the University of California have generated a lot of attention, especially after a plan of across-the-board salary cuts, combined with mandatory furlough days, was recently announced. How will such drastic financial measures threaten the strengths of that system and other large public universities? Are certain fields of study in the humanities and social sciences especially vulnerable to state cuts because those areas of inquiry—even when dealing with topics of broad importance—rarely get large infusions of national, foundation, or corporate monies of the sort that routinely support work done in areas such as engineering and medicine?

One way to begin to answer such big questions is to consider a specific case with which I am intimately familiar: that of modern Chinese history and closely related fields (e.g., literary and political studies of the country) as they have developed within the University of California system. I have had a long and varied relationship with that system, having received degrees from two of its campuses (Santa Cruz and Berkeley), taught at two others (a one-year visiting position at San Diego, now a permanent one at Irvine), and given public talks or participated in outreach events at three more (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Davis).

There are many distinctive things about the study of China, a country whose importance to America and indeed the world has never seemed greater, as evidenced most recently by President Obama's statement earlier this week, at the start of a series of high-level bilateral talks, that the "relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." There are also distinctive things about the University of California, such as its size and prominence—as well as about the budget crisis currently affecting it, which is unusually severe and has gotten a good deal of news-media attention. And yet, a close look at the current strength but also vulnerability of modern Chinese studies at the university offers a cautionary tale with relevance for many other areas of study and many other institutions.

Two things have often been overlooked in coverage of the California crisis. One is how scholarship in fields like history and political science—for which Nobel Prizes aren't given and big grants generally aren't received—has contributed to the system's reputation and overall excellence. Another is how the University of California works as a system, not just a cluster of separate campuses. A quick look at the area I know best, modern Chinese studies, illustrates those two often-ignored parts of the story. Here are some basic facts worth pondering:

  • When officials at the World Bank wanted advice on China recently, one person they called was a colleague of mine at the University of California at Irvine, the economic historian Kenneth Pomeranz, inviting him to come brief them. But if budget cuts like those happening now had hit earlier, he might have been working somewhere else, since several colleges had tried to recruit him in the preceding decade.
  • When the Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on Chinese human-rights issues in June, two people they brought to Washington were from the University of California: Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific Affairs at San Diego, and Perry Link, a specialist in East Asian studies at Riverside. Had the 2009 cuts come earlier, they would have been bringing Link from New Jersey, not California; one of the most talked-about developments in Chinese studies in recent years was Riverside hiring him away from Princeton University.
  • When members of the Association for Asian Studies select a vice president this fall (who will become the president automatically the following year), one of the two candidates on the ballot will be Gail Hershatter, a Chinese historian from the University of California at Santa Cruz. But it's unclear whether Hershatter would be listed as a University of California faculty member if financing levels had fallen sooner, since a few years ago a private university tried to recruit her.

Berkeley and UCLA have long placed Chinese-history graduate students in plum jobs, and sometimes the Davis campus (where a former president of the Association for Asian Studies, Susan Mann, teaches Chinese history) has done so as well. Recently, however, good tenure-track posts have gone to people who got their doctorates from other campuses in the system, like Irvine (we recently placed a student at the University of Hawaii), Santa Cruz (they placed one at Pomona College), and Santa Barbara (one of their graduates teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The big success story here, however, has been San Diego. Private fund raising helped it rise to a powerhouse in the field, but so, too, did its administrators' ability to move quickly—as they couldn't do now at a time of partial and full hiring freezes—to create new positions and replace departing faculty members in Chinese history.

In addition to teaching undergraduates, training graduate students, and doing specialized research and writing, China specialists at the University of California are actively involved in many kinds of public-outreach activities, including online ventures that help journalists and policy makers keep up with and understand developments in China. They include the China Digital Times Web site (run by Xiao Qiang of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism), the Chinapol e-mail list (founded by the UCLA political scientist Richard Baum), the AsiaMedia online magazine (also based at UCLA), and the China Beat (a group blog that was established 18 months ago at Irvine by faculty members and graduate students in the history department).

I read the China Digital Times nearly every day, am a member of Chinapol, and have written for AsiaMedia, but I don't know enough about how they operate to say if they will suffer in the new budget climate. I do know, however, that one co-founder of China Beat would not be at Irvine now if the institution had been hit by cuts a few years earlier. One crucial factor in my family's decision to move here was that, thanks to the campus's enlightened partner-hire program (since suspended as a belt-tightening measure), my wife, a librarian, was guaranteed a professional job that was roughly comparable to that she had to give up at Indiana University at Bloomington.

These tales may seem specific to individual University of California campuses. And in a sense they are, since recruitment and retention of faculty members, for example, often do come down to issues that are handled at each campus—like levels of graduate-student support, money for research and salary, and partner hires and budget lines to hire colleagues in specialized fields. Still, many systemwide factors figure significantly in all of the stories that I've sketched out.

One thing that has made people in my field eager to join the University of California system—or, in cases such as those of Pomeranz and Hershatter, has worked against them leaving when courted by other universities—is that the system's libraries have extraordinary holdings in Chinese studies and materials can circulate quickly between campuses. Another is the systemwide Pacific Rim program that supports faculty and graduate research on China. A third is the University of California Press's stellar Asian-studies list, in which books on China figure prominently.

In addition, doctoral candidates in Chinese history at all the campuses derive short-term educational and sometimes long-term job-market advantages from being able to study with faculty members from other campuses, and sometimes even have those scholars serve on their dissertation committees. They also benefit in similar ways from participating in an annual systemwide symposium that is run by and for students in their field.

Even with the digital experiments like China Beat, which do not rely on systemwide support, the flow of people between campuses for collective events has often made a difference. Two of the first people we invited to contribute were Angilee Shah, a former managing editor of AsiaMedia whom I met while speaking at a UCLA event, and Matthew Johnson, a graduate student from the San Diego campus who had visited our campus to speak at a symposium.

All of those programs and structures are now at risk. Library-collection budgets have been slashed, and materials are already moving more slowly from campus to campus. Pacific Rim grants are endangered. The university press has been hit hard by declining library budgets nationally that have affected book sales, while its staff members will experience pay cuts. And with money for conferences drying up—no surprise when some faculty members are being limited to four free photocopies per student per class—it's hard to figure out where we'll get the money to hold future workshops of the sort that brought Matthew Johnson here, or even the small sum needed to hold the next systemwide conference for Chinese-history students.

Such stories from one field illustrate—and tales focusing on many other areas would surely reveal the same—many factors beyond pay cuts that are causing deep concern among many University of California faculty members. No one wants to get a smaller paycheck. And furlough days have little real meaning to those of us likely to spend any days "off" doing research, writing articles, drafting letters of recommendation, preparing for classes, or in some cases speaking to school groups or editing online or print publications.

The reduction of salary should, however, turn out to be temporary. We worry most about the permanent damage that could be done if continuing cuts inspire petty squabbling over scarce resources, lead to the end of programs have helped make the University of California great, and ultimately undermine a system that has often been much more than merely the sum of its parts.

The development of modern Chinese studies at the University of California has been unusual in many aspects, but the general contours of the narrative are similar to those of other disciplines that are now strong but would not have become so in a financial situation like today's. Elements of this narrative also surely resonate, even if different in many specific ways, with tales that could be told about other public universities.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. He is author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).