Monday, October 19, 2009

Anthropology Professor: "As a teacher we’re role-modeling democratic citizenship for our students"

By Joanna Clay

Victoria Bernal is a professor of socio-cultural anthropology and director of graduate studies in anthropology at UCI and she spoke at the UCI walkout in September. I remember sitting among 400 students in her introductory class during my first year and deciding that would be my major. Professors like Bernal are what is at stake with cutbacks, furloughs and the undeniable lack of support for our public education in CA. I spoke to Professor Bernal about the crisis, the walkout and what she thinks society needs to ponder.

Q: How has the budget crisis affected your life?

A: I feel over time if they don’t set this right again…we’re not going to be able to attract and retain the exciting scholars that make teaching at UCI so rewarding. We have lost really vibrant people that contributed a lot to campus. A lot of them have gone to top private universities that pay them 50% more than what they earn at UCI.

Q: Can you elaborate more regarding professors leaving?

A: In terms of people I know personally, 3 close colleagues left for top private universities. People don't tell how much they make, but one told me it was 50% more than what UCI paid them.

Q: Do you know why they left?

A: I think professors leave UCI partly for higher pay, and also generally for a more supportive atmosphere to achieve more.

Q: Do you think getting quality professors will be more affected then let’s say the same quality of students?

A: I think it may affect students as well. I don’t know much… it will affect undergraduates looking where to go. If they keep raising fees… certainly when you think… that private colleges often offer financial aid. You may get to a point where getting an education at the University of California isn’t really a bargain compared to a private. I think part of what we have to attract really talented students is that you can get a first-rate top education here for much less than it would cost you at a private school. But that’s not going to be the case if they keep raising the fees given the fact that many of the private schools have big endowments. They have alums that donate. They come up with financial aid packages and so forth. 

Q: What do you say when you read more conservative commentators that say “Well, the UC schools are still very reasonable compared to other public and private universities…”?

A: Well I don’t know if they really know what they’re talking about. Because I think many people do compare, let’s say, a fee you’d pay to go to a UC with the tuition of a private school…but most private schools…most highly selective/highly regarded private schools…they basically have a commitment, that if they accept you, that you meet their criteria, they will meet your demonstrated financial need to attend. In other words, private schools have accepted the idea that they can’t just be for rich people. They also want to attract a range of people. They want to attract all kinds of talented people. So that view that it is still affordable compared to public schools is somewhat distorted. I think people are sort of basing that on the “list price” of private schools but at many of the private schools… I mean I’ve been looking into this, I have a college-age…a senior, my daughter is a senior in high school. We’re looking into colleges and many of the schools, over 50% are receiving some financial aid so you can’t just compare the sticker price.

Q: How will the UC budget crisis affect your daughter? Will she consider UC schools?

A: Yeah, the UC applications just became available on October 1st and so she’s going to be looking into setting up her account and applying. I think you can get a very good education at UC schools. We basically told her, she can apply at other schools as well but she has to include some schools within the UC system on her list.

Prof. Bernal went on about how she was personally affected by the cutbacks…

Even the class I’m teaching now where I have 430 undergraduates… I mean obviously ideally I don’t think anyone involved in education would say that’s optimal. Even if you had more TAs. That size of a class, no one can defend that pedagogically. We’re trying to combine discussion sections and we’re having trouble finding rooms because there is a shortage of classroom space and the classrooms they have right now are too small to accommodate the overflow. So I guess my sense is really that society needs to ask the hard questions – what is the role of public education? Is it really the cornerstone of everything we value in society? Shouldn’t we be really investing in it more because it isn’t just for our immediate well-being but it’s basically what the future is based on, teaching new generations to have skills and learn how to learn so they can keep going.

…I’m big on social kinds of things. I think not only should there be funding for public education but I think there should be funding for the arts. …Everything is sort of brought down to what will make an immediate profit. If we start to think of things like education as some kind of luxury that we can do without, I mean that’s a dangerous thing.

Q: You said you have about 430 undergraduates right now. How does that compare to past years so I can get a sort of time-line. Did you used to have substantially less?

A: These class sizes have existed before, but I have one less TA which means that each TA has over 100 students to deal with and discussion sections are capped at 40 which is ridiculous if discussion is expected to take place.

I came to UCI believing that they were a proponent of an academic (versus vocational) education. Your major was supposed to be something of interest and wouldn’t necessarily translate directly into a job etc. I feel as a student with a social/creative major… that it may be accepted now in society, because as of recently it’s more common but if those depts. get pushed out… it’s just going to get harder and harder…

In many ways society should feel a college education today as what a high school education maybe was for your grandparents generation or something. In my view, if we saw it that way, it should be part of the public education. Nowadays, to function in the job market it’s kind of a minimum to have a 4-year degree. I’m not saying it should be vocational. You’ve got to prepare people. People live a long time now, the economy develops, new advances and technology and change the conditions of work. You have to develop people that have the ability to learn to learn. You’re not just going to give them some kind of preparation and then “Ok you’re going to do that for life.”  I think people should look forward to the fact that they’ll keep learning …

Q: How has your department faced setbacks?

No professors have been laid off in my department, but we have fewer lecturers and fewer TAs. I think our department is understaffed because there is a lot of administrative work and bureaucracy required for anything we do at UCI and this takes up a great amount of professors' time that could be used in teaching and research. If we had clerical and administrative staff support --a lot that is work that does not require any anthropological training-- so it could be delegated to staff.

Q: What motivated you to speak at the walkout?

A: The interesting thing that really started to motivate me was that I started to see how many people were afraid to speak out or to join in and be visible in any way even though they’re very upset about what’s going on. I felt if someone like myself, that does have a secure job…if people feel like they could be punished for doing this…could lose their jobs…or could get fired…whatever it is. If they are too afraid to speak out then those of us that have more security should speak out…because we’re not just speaking out for ourselves, we’re representing those other people too who feel like they can’t take the chance.

…As a teacher, we’re also role-modeling democratic citizenship for our students. We’re showing we’re not going to be completely passive and only talk behind the backs of people but never actually publicly stand up for what we believe in. So I feel like that’s educational too.

Q: Even though you do have job security (tenure), do you see any changes in your future if the problem persists?

A: I think there is a point…where… it is sort of demoralizing aspect of it. People have this very mistaken idea that only the hours that the professor spends in the classroom are the “hours they spent working”. They really don’t understand the amount of work that we do to administer various programs and to do all the sorts of things that keep the university running. We evaluate our curriculum, we develop the courses, evaluate other professors…we review articles and book manuscripts and grant proposals. There’s a whole bunch of things that we do that are part of being part of a big university that’s not really visible to the public.

…The fewer resources we have for things that could be done by staff. I guess it kind of burns people out.

…I think it’s a process of burnout and becoming demoralized.


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