Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Race to the Bottom: A Critical Response to the UCLA Humanities Task Force

For the past nine months, an ad hoc task force has been meeting in order to rethink the structure of the humanities division at UCLA. All people interested in the future of higher education should be concerned with this report that makes several questionable recommendations. While the authors claim that their main emphasis is not to slash the budgets of these programs, it is clear that their central focus is to reduce labor costs at the university: “Language instruction is labor-intensive and tends at UCLA to employ non-ladder instructors unprotected by tenure. Because of this, we expect there to be substantial pressure to ease the language requirement, which would not only blatantly contradict all three of the “chief campus priorities of excellence, diversity, and community engagement” (which our charge letter reasonably reminds us to “bear in mind”), but would also in our opinion be disastrous on multiple levels.” Reading this opening salvo, one would think that report would endorse protecting language instruction and non-tenure-track faculty (lecturers), but we soon learn that this ad hoc faculty committee (with no lecturer representation) attempts to imagine a world without lecturers.

As this report constantly points out, lecturers are the least expensive teachers, and they teach many--if not most--of the required classes in the humanities, but they are also the most vulnerable during a budget crisis, and so the campus must find a way to staff undergraduate courses without these teachers. The first recommendation is to strengthen the foreign language programs by moving up to half of the classes to summer and online: “Active use of the Summer Sessions would produce two immediate and direct benefits: (1) pressure would be lessened upon those language programs that are currently overburdened between September and June; (2) revenue could be generated during the summer to fund both lecturers and graduate students. We estimate that as much as 40-50% of language teaching could be moved to the summer, and even more if we consider the undeveloped potential for an affiliated Online Language Program, based upon the profitable, technically established model in place for the last five years at UCLA’s TFT. Enrollments and income will both grow. Non-UCLA students could be specifically targeted, not only from elsewhere within California, but also abroad.” What this report does not mention is that by moving half of the courses to summer, UCLA would be able to lay off all of its language instructors, and then hire these faculty members back without benefits and at much lower salaries. Since summer session is only partially covered by the lecturers contract, the summer teachers could be paid at a low rate and would lose all of their job protections.

Of course, the other major part of this initiative is the question of the effectiveness of online language instruction. In fact, much of this report is spent defending the idea that the turn to online learning will not undermine the reputation of the institution; rather, the task force claims that UCLA will be able to position itself as a leader of high quality digital learning: “UCLA’s great reputation would assure the popularity of our online courses, especially given the complete lack of competition today in the “high-end” realm of learner-centered, distance pedagogy.” As someone who has written an entire book on the subject of how online education undermines the value of research universities, I would argue that the lack of competition stems from the realization that most online programs end up to be very expensive and result in a low level of student retention. That is not to say that we should not use new media in our classes; rather, we cannot employ these new technologies to completely replace in-class instruction.

In one of the most dubious parts of this report, the writers claim that the turn to online writing instruction will actually save money and jobs: “Online learning offers the potential to achieve several concrete goals: improvement in students’ time-to-degree; a lessening of pressure in overcrowded classrooms; the generation of funds in order to save lecturers’ positions; and the emergence of UCLA as the leader in top-quality, i.e., not cut-price, distance education.” First of all, if you move courses to summer and online, you will not need any lecturers, except for the ones you hire on the cheap during the summer. Second of all, the reason why online programs costs so much is that they require a tremendous amount of equipment, staff, electricity, and administration; moreover, most studies of online education show that these programs hurt the ability of students to graduate on time because so many students drop out or do not complete their courses.

Perhaps the most noxious part of this plan is the idea to force students to pay extra to fulfill their language courses in the summer: “Because many students might prefer to avoid the added expense of summer study, a respectful hierarchy would need to be established among participants. If languages were indeed offered year-round, it would be only fair to give Majors and Pre-Majors in the relevant departments first choice during the school year. Language instruction that is traditionally oversubscribed, such as Chinese and Spanish, could require transfer or “external” students from other departments to satisfy their language requirements during the summer.” I believe this passage is positing that students who are not majoring in a specific language would have to take the course during the summer or some other program that requires payment. Instead of students being able to study their home language at UCLA, they would now have to pay extra for the privilege of language instruction.

As language instruction gets squeezed, the plan is to set up a new Humanities Institute and develop a new major in Digital Humanities. While these programs might seem like good ways of rethinking the humanities, these new initiatives would surely cost a large amount of money, and one has to question why UCLA is pursuing a policy of eliminating all lecturers due to budgetary concerns as it embarks on projects that require new administrators, faculty, and staff. Furthermore, the report reveals that the humanities have been kept afloat by their reliance on courses taught by lecturers, but now they are going to eliminate their own cash cow: “Humanities generating over $59 million in student fee revenue, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the Physical Sciences, which come up several million dollars short in this category). Writing Programs alone generates $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue at a cost of only $2.4 million. These profits will increase as student fees increase; they would be even greater if we figured in a share of the over-enrollment subsidies due from the state. In pursuing our vital, non- profit mission of advancing knowledge and teaching, the Humanities is not only a bargain, but also a profit-generating entity. Massive cuts in the Humanities instructional budget are not only destructive to the core mission of the University; they are also financially unjustifiable.” According to this analysis, the Writing Programs generates a large profit for the humanities, and any cut to this program would be destructive to the core mission and financially unjustifiable; however, the report fails to mention that all of the faculty in the Writing Programs have been given one-year layoff notices. While we expect that some of these layoffs will be rescinded, the current plan is to replace many of the lecturers with graduate students and faculty from other programs.

In one of the only other mentions of writing instruction in the report, the authors actually suggest placing faculty from other departments who continue to have low workloads into writing classes: “Faculty whose courses are insufficiently enrolled could be assigned to appropriate courses in the Humanities Institute, The Language Center, or the Writing Programs (as is already the case in at least one department). Department chairs will be responsible for making such assignments, and for assuring that faculty teaching in the writing program are sufficiently trained through the program’s pedagogy course.” In this structure, teaching in the Writing Programs would be the ultimate threat to tenured professors. Here we see how the most popular and profitable program at UCLA is represented as the worst form of punishment for underutilized faculty.

Not only does this task force suggest moving language courses to the summer and online, but it lists over a hundred high-enrollment courses from all over the curriculum that could be shifted to the summer. If the university actually followed the advice of this report, we would see most of the required undergraduate courses placed online, and students would have to pay extra for the privilege of taking these classes of questionable quality. One of the justifications for this move is that the high-enrollment classes already suffer from a low level of quality: “most of our GE/Lower-Division students have some experience of classes that are so big, they’d be better off watching a video performance, a close-up broadcast that is paused and (re)considered at their own pace. The bigger classes often offer no contact with the professor, in any case. Hence the number of students in the back row(s) “taking notes” on their laptops, many of whom are actually polishing their Facebook profiles. (The same students, no doubt, also wish they were at home, watching a popular BruinCast of the same information. This is an online program, in fact, that is now so popular it has caused lecture attendance to decrease!).” In other words, large lecture classes already provide such a poor level of instruction and interaction that we might as well move the whole thing online. It is amazing that these thoughtful advocates of the humanities are actually recommending the destruction of higher education and effective undergraduate instruction.


  1. Thanks for alerting us to this report, Bob. I agree with you that many advocates of online education do not understand that it is actually quite expensive and time consuming. I think we could develop ways to creatively use online components, not as replacements but as extensions of current practice. But again, that is not a cost cutting measure. In addition, any growth in online teaching (which will undoubtedly utilize adjuncts) should include an affirmative plan to pay adjuncts good salaries/benefits and provide job security.

  2. I think making students pay extra for summer classes is unfair. We pay for fall, winter and spring, not summer. Also, firing instructors and hiring teachers only part time in the summer is crazy. These people have families. They need a fair salary and benefits; things they wouldn't get if fired or only hired part time.

  3. Is it true that a full-time workload for a senate faculty is equivalent to 20 credits, e.g. 5 courses with 4 or 5 credits each? This is based on the English Department's definition of full load. Some foreign language lecturers teach 8 courses with 5 credits each, which means, 40 credits or 32 credits since the calculation for a 5 credit course is only equivalent to 4. Shouldn't lecturers get credit for the overload in terms of compensation?

  4. we took your essay for its relevancy to our new section dedicated to how the crisis affects language and ethnic studies departments... We put your name on it and a link, I hope you're ok with it, otherwise, we can remove it. The very best... (www.humanities.uci.edu/spanishandportuguese/alud/blog/?page_id=984

  5. http://www.senate.ucla.edu/committees/executiveboard/documents/HumanitiesTaskForceReport.pdf

  6. Hi! I'm a senior at ucla, majoring in French. Other students and I have recently become aware that our most incredible "lecturers" (it feels insufficent to call them that, as they have their PhD's and all...) will be laid off. Therefore we have created an online petition to save our lecturers:


    Students are mobilizing, coordinating, and networking to save our humanities lecturers! Please help support us by signing this petition, and future petitions to come!

    Emily Adams

  7. This decision to change the language requirement to summer sessions is only beneficial to the higher ranks of UCLA. It is inconvenient for students because it is expensive and some students do not live in California so they will not be able to return home for the summer. Because the students will not be able to return home they will have to pay for housing over the break. Students already have to deal with the tuition increase.It is also unfair for students to be required to stay over the summer to take classes that they pay for to take during the fall, winter, and spring quarters. The lecturers that the school wil hire back will only be working part time which means a lower salary and no benefits. Again this does not help anyone except the policy makers whose sole intention is to save money.

  8. I agree that we should not make students pay more for less by having mandatory classes over the summer. Not only will tuition be more expensive, but the quality of learning will diminish, which questions the educational mission of UCLA. The professors have also earned their tenure and don't deserve to be laid off or replaced.

  9. I feel that if they decide to change the humanities division at UCLA, it might take a toll on the quality of the education offered at the university at the expense of its reputation. Up to this point there are prepared professors who excel in their fields, and without them the way students view education at UCLA will change negatively.The professors whom they are planning to replace them with would have unfair contracts and might even get paid less. The alternatives that are being offered to students are inconvenient since they are time consuming and more expensive. Students will have to face the fact that they must turn to other places for the education they were expecting to receive at UCLA.

  10. It is shocking to know that a task force has been trying to change the way students at UCLA learn. UCLA is a highly respected university and this plan to replace full time lecturers with online classes and summer courses is ridiculous. It is unfair that highly educated lecturers and professors will lose their jobs and benefits. Students will not get the quality education they were expecting and surely UCLA will not be perceived the same way.
    It would be devastating if the task force's proposed plans follow through. Thank you Mr. Samuels for drawing our attention to this issue.

  11. Students should have the choice to take summer classes rather than be forced. Summer classes would cost more money; money that they don't have, especially during this economic crisis. This report is trying to mediate the current budget crisis by cutting back on lecturers in the humanities in an attempt to save money, but it is not acknowledging the money students would have to pay to attend summer classes. Furthermore, students choose to take classes in the summer to graduate early, and this change may affect that goal. If anything it would delay their graduation because it would restrict their class choices during the school year. Not to forget to mention that college is a time of exploration and the shift to online classes will limit the opportunities to explore.

  12. As an out of state student, I feel like paying for summer quarter on top of the recent tuition increase is just too much. Moving courses online is not an effective solution either. Bottom line: students do not receive the same experience online as they would in a classroom.

  13. The idea of firing lecturers makes me question the quality of education UCLA wants to provide for its students. I feel as though it is no longer about students' education, but about the money the school will save by laying off lecturers. It is unfair for qualified professors to lose their jobs when they have spent so much time and effort pursuing a degree.

  14. I'm afraid the current measures being taken will not just negatively affect the studnet and teacher populationt today, but also cause further negative repercussions on the schools' reputations in the future. Rather than attempting to abandon the traditional way of teaching in classrooms and implementing online courses that already ahve een proven to be ineffective, they should take responsibility in fixing the mess created. Assuming school smaintain their untis requirements, it becomes close to impossible for students to graduate on time without taking extra classes during the summer. If they are already paying for the other 3 quarters, why would they need to pay so much more just to graduate?

  15. As three first-year students here at UCLA, we feel that becoming an online university would be insulting to our education. We came to UCLA because it is prestigious and widely-known for its superior education. If this is a "research" university, then why are we offering classes that attempt to replace professors with the Internet? Research cannot be done solely over the Internet. Some disciplines like psychology requires human interaction.

    It's not fair to the "lecturers" or the students to be forced into summer classes when we have to pay extra while the "lecturers" are being paid less.

  16. The task force's report seemed to me to specifically advocate for language and writing programs, which as you note are especially vulnerable since they are manned primarily by lecturers not protected by tenure. Rather than insisting that every lecturer position must remain secure in an all-or-nothing stance, the report suggests that preserving the integrity of education that writing and language requirements ensure should be the chief priority, and that in order to maintain the feasibility of these programs, new ways of increasing instructional efficiency and maximizing resources should be considered. Faced with the possibility that these programs might be cut entirely, what alternative would you propose?

    With regard to the additional burden these suggestions might place on undergraduates: After the mid-year fee increases, undergraduates enrolled in a normal course load (45 units/year) are paying roughly $216 per unit in 09-10. The summer fees are only very slightly higher, at $235 per unit ($229 per unit plus a $6 or $7 IEI fee). This is unfortunate, but not a huge discrepancy - and offering more language teaching during the summer term might both help to bring the summer term fees down and allow students the opportunity to take the language of their choice. Students who are unable to attend class over the summer would still have the option of taking languages during the year, which should not be a problem if they don't want to take Spanish or Chinese. Perhaps this might help our undergraduates expand their horizons? That is the point of the language requirement, isn't it?

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