Over the past decade, and especially after the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen the following trends in the UC system: the number of disproportionally well compensated administrators has risen dramatically, the number of undergraduate students has steadily grown in all campus, and, paradoxically, the number of instructors and faculty, especially instructors with security of employment, has declined exponentially. This is a recipe for disaster. The prestige of our campuses can only last for so long if we continue to divest from high quality instruction in our classrooms. As I will explain briefly below, the so-called financial crisis is mostly a crisis of priorities. If we want to maintain the prestige of the UC system across the world, we need to make our students and instructors a priority again.
Graduate students play a crucial role at our campuses. They are the avant-garde of our research production, but they are also trusted with the education of a significant number of undergraduates in the UC system. However, as a general rule, they are poorly compensated. They have to work endless hours to make a living under very dire labor conditions. Having participated almost every year in the graduate admission process of my department, I can confidently say that it is not an easy task to convince prospective students to accept our financial packages. We are, in fact, losing many bright students to other institutions.
Graduate students at UCSD have to work at least twice as frequently as graduate students in other comparable institutions, they have lower salaries, they have to live in cities with sky rocketing living costs, and they face very large classrooms with very little pedagogical support. Let me give you a concrete example. I taught at Emory, Yale, Michigan and UCSD. An upper division Spanish class at Emory had a maximum of 12 students, at Yale the number was 15, Michigan 22 and UCSD… well, there is, in theory, a maximum of 40, but in practice we fight to get as many students as we can in these classrooms to secure TAship positions, tenure lines and so on. I suspect in the writing programs sections are even bigger. The more the merrier is not a wise pedagogical policy. In the long run, the prestige of our universities will suffer.
From a pedagogical point of view, it has been extensively documented that crowded classrooms are extremely detrimental for the learning process. Furthermore, a high student/faculty ratio negatively affects students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Minority students come from a deeply unequal system of education and, therefore, are more likely to fall through the cracks of a system that has increasingly abdicated from one of its main missions: providing affordable and high quality education for all Californians (see the Master Plan)
Graduate students in our campuses are hired to teach in an impossible scenario. Every year, we ask them to do more with less in every respect. They have to teach larger classrooms, more sections, grade more papers, and receive salaries that are not adjusted to the cost of living of Californian cities. As result, many graduate students take on more debt, especially historically underrepresented minority students and poor students without rich parents to support them through a graduate career structured around a completely unrealistic and increasingly short “normative time”. Graduate school cannot be a revolving door to provide the University with cheap and contingent labor.
Yet, amazingly enough, our UC graduate students still manage to write groundbreaking dissertations while they mentor and teach an increasing number of undergraduate students. Sometimes this comes at the expense of their health. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression at some point or another during their graduate careers. The working environment for graduate students is, indeed, unhealthy and it is deteriorating very fast. By worsening the labor conditions of graduate students the administration is playing with fire, because we are putting them at the limit of their human capacity to fulfill their duties. This, needless to say, compromises the institutional mission of the university.
I can imagine many administrators agreeing with me and still saying that they do not have the economic resources to improve labor conditions for graduate students. This is simply not true. The decision to divest from instruction in the UC system is political; it is not the result of the financial problems of the University or the State. As I said at the beginning, the number of extremely well compensated administrators has tripled over the past decade. While administrators are an important component of the University, there is no reason to justify the transfer of funds from class instruction to this new managerial class. Furthermore, while the lack of state support is important, the UC system has many other pockets of financial resources. These funds are allocated primarily in the profit making centers of the university and other capitalist ventures (i.e. research associated with emerging markets, construction projects, etc.). The decision to not use these financial resources for instruction support in general and graduate students support in particular is also political. Often so-called restricted funds are restricted only because the university labels them as such. To put it another way, if the UC system needs to save money, we can save on light bulbs or bureaucrats, but we should all agree that the core mission of the University –the education of Californians—needs to be protected at all costs.
For all of these reasons, I call on the UC administration and its bargaining team to negotiate in good faith with the Graduate Student Union and to provide adequate compensation and benefits for our graduate instructors and graders. The future and the prestige of our UC system are at stake. If instruction quality, affordability and access continue to decline, the prestige of the University will be surely affected. I am absolutely convinced that the UC system has the resources to provide fair labor conditions to our graduate students. To do so, is not only fair, it is also an investment on the entire UC community, and on the future of the State of California.
Associate Professor, Literature
EAP Director Argentina/Chile