Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, track #6

Sometimes, you wonder how California exists.

I say this as a proud, ryde-or-die Californian. Product of California public schools. I will sooner reread Vineland than Gravity's Rainbow. I searched eBay for a King Tee poster just last night. I was emotional when I had to trade my California driver's license for a New York one.

But this is just nuts (or, in the words of a friend and fellow UC product, "fucking awesome" in a "tragic/trainwreck" sort of way). As the UC (and CSU) (and, for different reasons, public K-12) system withers away, a vanguard squad of UC San Diego profs have stepped forward with a bold new plan to formalize a split between the UCs that matter (Berkeley, LA, San Diego and, in a specialized way, UCSF) and the rest. Perhaps owing in part to UCSD's status as a premier institution in the fields of marine biology and oceanography, the image of crabs in a barrel comes to mind.

While it's doubtful the UCSD proposal will gain favor, it's going to be a fascinating fight with implications for public higher ed throughout the country (though few states have the kinds of tax issues that California does). What doesn't make sense, though, is the part of the proposal where the UCSD chairs essentially want to relegate UCs Merced, Santa Cruz and Riverside. Economically, it doesn't make sense to create a two-tiered system of research institutions and teaching institutions, since the engine of the higher education industry is actually graduate student labor. Also--would class sizes at these "teaching UCs" shrink as well?

Along with everyone else, higher education has suffered mightily over the past year. But these schemes to recover what we once had--a call sounded most loudly by senior faculty members--won't work, and they aren't what is needed. The auto analogy the UCSD chairs invoke is an ironic one. But what does this mean? What is the "product" of the UC system? Students, citizens, workers? Articles and books? Research? Status and institutional prestige? Instead of a conversation on the aims of higher education in new times, a reimagination of disciplinary boundaries or anything that promotes fluid, adaptive thinking, a lunge for dwindling resources.

The full letter has been circulating, and it should be available here. The "lower-tier" UCs aren't what got the system into this mess. The same applies to the students who attend the UCs--unfortunately, they are probably the ones who will suffer the most.

And besides, everyone knows that the lowest-ranking UC is actually Stanford.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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