Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reading Guide for the “Needs Attention” Memo

(Via We Are UCI)

A memo titled General Comments on Units Designated “Needs Attention”was sent to Humanities chairs and directors. The following is a very well articulated analysis of the memo, written by one of our brilliant UCI grad students.

You can access the “Needs Attention” memo here:

http://ucleaks.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/documentzero.pdf (Note: I do not know who put this up. I don’t know how long this link will be good.)

The following is a “Reading Guide” I drafted for this memo. The acronyms are explained.


My name is Tetsuro Namba and I am a graduate student in the Comparative Literature program here at UCI. I am passing around the “Needs Attention” memo because I believe that everyone who has an interest in the humanities should be aware of the situation we are facing. We all know that the state of California continuously cuts its support for the UC’s. But these budget cuts are not distributed equally; some parts of the university suffer more than others. The School of Humanities (SOH) is facing a 4.8% reduction in its budget; this comes out to $1.3 million. On top of this cut, there is still a $500,000 budget cut shortfall from last year. So the SOH must, altogether, cut $1.8 million by next year. Bear in mind that on 11/28, the UC regents met and approved of salary raises for lawyers, managers and administrators, including a 9.9% raise for UCI’s vice chancellor of planning and budget, Meredith Michaels. We are looking at an institution that finds nothing wrong with giving a raise to someone in charge of budgets, while at the same time cutting those very budgets.

However, what is most distressing about this memo is not the amount of money being cut, but how these budget cuts are being used by the administration to actively reshape the humanities at UCI. These sorts of budget decisions are made by the office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost (the EVC/P). Over the past year, the EVC/P assessed every department according to a variety of factors, with each department given points that ultimately designate it as either “Protect,” “Maintain,” or “Needs Attention.” “Needs Attention” here means having your budget cut. In other words, it’s not an affectionate attention. It’s a punitive attention. So far, the departments and programs that have been deemed “Needs Attention” are: African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literature, French & Italian, German, and Women’s Studies.

The “Needs Attention” memo attached was sent out by the EVC/P in order to explain how they have made these assessments. The assessment is based heavily on numerical factors used to determine the “productivity” of departments. Two important factors used are the majors-to-faculty ratio (“Total Majors per FTE”) and the number of students actually taught by faculty in classrooms. This latter is referred to on the document as the “SCH(PHD)/Filled FTE,” which stands for Student Credit Hours (Payroll Home Department) per Filled Full Time Equivalent. “Student Credit Hours” is the unit of measurement used to calculate students in classrooms. “Full Time Equivalent” is the unit of measurement used to designate faculty members (awkwardly labeled so it can encompass joint appointments). So a “Total Majors per Filled FTE” number represents how many majors there are, on average, for every faculty member within that department. So, the school average of 15.3:1 Total Majors per Filled FTE means that for every professor at UCI there are 15.3 students. These numbers are important as departments and programs are being urged by administration to teach as many students as they can, both in classes and as majors in the field.

As students, we should be concerned that “productivity” is measured numerically in this way. Departments are being encouraged to have more students per professor. The administration wants faculty members to teach large numbers of students so that it can process as many students as it can for the fewest instructors. But a higher student to faculty ratio means that every student gets less attention and energy from our mentors and teachers. It is in our interest—in the interest of the quality of our education—to have lower student to faculty ratios. While we have many interests in common with the administration and the school in general, our interests don’t always coincide. Here we are directly at odds: we want the best quality education for our dollar, they want to cut costs as much as they can.

However, this purely numerical calculation is not the only factor in the assessment of departments. Compare, for instance, the “productivity” of the East Asian Literature and Languages (EALL) department with History (bottom of p. 2). History is a unit that is “Protected,” while EALL is one that “Needs Attention.” The reasoning for this discrepancy is noted on p. 3-4. EALL is seen by the EVC/P as a department whose “focus” is hard to determine—not surprisingly, since it covers Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. These are fields that look to places and histories with radically different pasts and particularities (interestingly, not unlike the History department). The other reasons why EALL is a unit that “Needs Attention” is that it is very small, and that, furthermore, the School of Humanities is not interested in EALL. This latter point is very interesting, as EALL is a very popular department. The Korean language classes, for instance, are always full. From a purely numerical standpoint, there isn’t really a reason to cut the budget of EALL and not cut history as well. Instead, EALL is being cut because money has to be cut somewhere, and it simply doesn’t fit the image the administrators have of the humanities.

In other words, if you look beyond the numerical analysis, a specific image of the humanities emerges in this memo, and this image is based on a limited understanding of the values of humanistic research. For instance, small departments and programs that are interested in interdisciplinary work suffer disproportionately. This is particularly alarming for those students who are interested in less traditional programs or more obscure fields. It is very telling to glance over which programs have been deemed the least “productive” (the table on p. 4)—all are associated with minority groups and are programs with histories of struggles for recognition and inclusion, even at Irvine. Our Asian American Studies program, for instance, was formed only after students here went on a concerted campaign and hunger strike. We cannot assume that it is by mere coincidence that a program that had to fight for its right to exist in the first place has been targeted for budget reductions that threaten its very existence and viability. Of course, it would not be accurate to call the EVC/P assessment racist or sexist. It is simply conservativist, with perhaps a hint of xenophobia.

In short, the entire assessment and budget reduction process set a dangerous precedent. What we are witnessing is how the humanities at UCI are being institutionally forced into a more traditional and intellectually conservative position. In fact, this entire memo evidences an aggressive will to ignorance. Take, for example, the paragraph at the bottom of page 1, where the memo acknowledges that its form of numerical accounting unfairly disadvantages interdisciplinary programs, yet they do not bother to try to change their method of assessment to account for it. It seems that if the EVC/P does not understand what your department or program does, then it will not take measures to understand it or assess it fairly, and your department will suffer. In other words, the failings of the assessor are assumed to be failings on the part of the assessed. Though this assessment attempts to appear objective and numerical, the comparison between History and EALL shows that these sorts of funding decisions can be and often are made on other grounds. They are made with certain assumptions about what is or is not legitimate humanistic research. This latter question is, of course, one that will always haunt the humanities, but it is a question that should be addressed by the students and faculty of the humanities, not by administrators.

The older, more established departments, such as English, History, Classics and Philosophy, have long traditions, and these traditions do protect them from the more severe budget cuts—for the moment. The question for these protected departments is: how long will it be before the administration decides that it doesn’t understand why people study novels at all? Or obscure historical minutia? Or minor points of logical deduction? In other words, the conservativist demand that this kind of assessment puts on the humanities is antithetical to humanistic research, if not academic research in general. Through these sorts of “productivity” assessments and budget reductions, the administration is taking a very active role in shaping the future of the humanities at UCI. And this is a trend that should trouble all of us.

If you are reading this letter, you are invited to a meeting Thursday of Week One of Winter Quarter at 6PM in HH 105. We will then decide on how best to respond to this situation and what viable courses of action are available to us. Any student of any year or program, graduate or undergraduate, is invited.

Please pass along this memo, this reading guide, and this invitation.

In solidarity,


Comparative Literature Graduate Student, 4th year

This document was drafted 11/25 – 11/29, 2011. It has benefited from clarifying feedback and information from multiple sources. But any errors or misunderstandings are mine. TN

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