Friends of PKK: The True State of the Humanities at the University of California

This is a guest post from Catherine Liu, who is a PKK reader, a tenured ally and an outspoken advocate for academic labor rights and the Humanities. I am posting her contribution word-for-word as it was sent to me. Catherine has refused my $35 payment, so I would like to donate it to a worthy cause (and no, the next #ButtScan winner is not a worthy cause). Suggestions welcome.

This is a HUGE scoop for PKK, and I am honored that Catherine believes mine is a platform big enough to break this (although, to be fair, it appears on several other academic blogs simultaneously, because, I mean, it’s just me).

A Comedy of Errors and Neglect: A History of Twilight

by Catherine Liu

David Gardner was the 15th President of the University of California (1983-1992) and he was author of the Gardner Initiative – a funding scheme that allowed for the establishment of the University of California Humanities Research Institute as well as the campus Humanities Centers. UC Irvine won the bid to house the UCHRI. Campus centers received annual disbursements from the Central Administration, amounting to approximately 50K. In addition, UC Berkeley found a donor to establish the Townsend Center; UCLA found private funding for its many Centers and Institutes; and more recently, UC Merced was able to obtain a $2 million endowment for its Humanities Center.. However, the other  campuses engaged upon building their owns Centers, the most successful of which was the Center for Ideas and Society at UC Riverside. The Centers were supposed to support interdisciplinary Humanities Research. The prestige of the Humanities was more or less unquestioned, and the Centers and Institutes were run by a series of senior professors who taught literature and paid attention to history. This was the Cold War Humanities that won hearts and minds at home and abroad.

In 2008, under the reign of Mark Yudof and in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, the University of California Office of the President announced that the funds for the Gardner initiative would no longer be “automatically” available. We were all to become more “accountable” – there were no longer to be any “entitlements. “ We all had to work together, to find synergies, to emerge bleary eyed from our silos and – collaborate.

The Humanities Deans rallied and worked with UCHRI to apply for funding renewal announced here in 2011, dating the founding of the Consortium and the UC Humanities Network to  2009. David Marshall, Dean of the School of Humanities at UCSB, spearheaded the effort with David Theo Goldberg, Director of UCHRI.

The Network and the Consortium were to be administered by UCHRI, whose entire array of activities can be found here:

2014 marks the expiration of the funds that have sustained the Centers and the Consortium. In addition, the President’s Faculty Fellowships and graduate student fellowships will also be suspended for 2014-2015.  The recipients were named rather pretentiously a Society of Fellows, but as far as we know, other Societies (at Cornell or Princeton) do not struggle for funding from year to year.

$11 million over 5 years will have been expended by next Spring. As of today, there is no call for 2014 because of budget cuts: in the best case scenario, some Centers might  receive local campus “bridge funding” for one year, and a new competition will be announced.

Note that UCHRI, the Consortium and the Network are mysterious entities: there is a web “portal” that alleges their activities, but little real sense of collaboration.

Is the collapse of funding for the Humanities at the UC the result of thoughtless administration? Conspiracy against the Humanities? Difficult to say, except that the news as it has emerged has been fragmented at best. Faculty are not entirely aware of the consequences of the postponement of the call. The idea of protest or letter writing was squelched in favor of closed-door negotiations. The results are still negative.

Is Janet Napolitano, new President of the UC, aware of the artificially produced crisis in Humanities funding?

It seems that it has made absolutely no difference whether or not we kept our criticisms of the ways the funds were administered to ourselves, whether we collaborated or not. If we cannot describe our own reality in accurate language, how can we teach our students about textual analysis? Accountability, assessment, evaluation, competition, collaboration, these were the anodyne watchwords that we were supposed to respect without question. We gave out money, but the quality and number of applications to the mini-Multicampus Research Groups were never quite representative of the best Humanities scholarship at UC. A grant program is only as good as the applications it can attract, and the confusing nature of Network, Institute and Consortium was difficult even for hardened veterans of UC bureaucracy to divine. Indeed, most professors preferred to read and write on their own. We waited for the reputation of the grants to grow through better communications and research results, hoping for greater participation in the program.

Even if the Humanities at the UC were fully re-funded, a threat  will hang over the organization as it is reconfigured. Private funding will become more important than ever. MacArthur and Mellon foundations are already shaping the way in which UCHRI configures its Humanities research and the more successful Centers all have large amounts of external funding.  UCHRI organized a celebration of the Gardner initiative at UCLA this past spring: it was also supposed to showcase the research of the Society of Fellows. Difficult to organize and almost impossible to coordinate, it depleted UCHRI’s talented Associate Director, who resigned shortly after the event. The position is still unfilled as of the writing of this essay.

As the uninformed and ideologically slanted “demise of the Humanities” meme continues to be trumpeted in the news media, and as the ardent defenders of the Humanities read the tea leaves of student enrollments, what is absolutely clear is that at upper levels of higher education administration, the Humanities are not really worth the trouble either to finance or manage well. (My emphasis–RS)

The Gardner Initiative supported the idea that high quality Humanities research must be supported by a large, ambitious public University. Perhaps that was a simpler time, but the fact that a UC President would see this as a worthwhile endeavor seems rather ironic. Before he left office, Yudof gave $100,000 to be distributed as part of a Public Humanities Initiative to the ten campuses. The $11 million gap is hardly filled by this one-time Public Humanities grant, but it is always mentioned as a sign of our success in getting the harried and ailing former President’s fleeting attention. No one seems to care enough about the long-term existence of Humanities research support: we need to build trust and confidence, but our leaders have no idea to what degree that trust has been undermined. They hope that the ethos of professionalism will keep us quiet. 

6 thoughts on “Friends of PKK: The True State of the Humanities at the University of California

  1. Rebecca: Have you seen this? —

    She talks a lot about you and the job market, but has literally never been on the market herself. Take a look at her cv —

    Has been at U of A since 2002, first MA, then PhD, now Asst Prof. At. The. Same. University.


    • I’ve seen it, and Werner Herzog’s Bear has done an *amazing* takedown of it. He’s the best person to do the takedown, because she’s a lifeboater extraordinaire. She’s got no clue whatsoever what adjuncts are, and barely devotes a half-sentence to them (and only in the abstract). She is (cue Jean-Ralphio for the third time in as many days) ::the woooooooooorst::, but WHB took her down right good, which I love, and I couldn’t do better.


  2. And this is my favorite part of her essay: “Sure, that can be frustrating, if not disillusioning. But, you know what? It’s 12:55 on a Tuesday, and I’m sitting here with my laptop and another cup of tea comparing contemporary frustrations with those of literary lore. And, yesterday, I was able to steal away an hour’s coffee klatch with a historian colleague of mine to catch up and trade descriptions of our busy lives. I didn’t even have to punch a clock. I got paid that whole time.” (

    It’s 4 PM on a Thursday and I’m sitting here with my credit card account open, wondering how I’m going to pay for my surgery tomorrow. Because I can’t afford insurance but I need this surgery urgently. Because even with a PhD in the humanities and two years on the market and eight years of teaching experience, no one will give me the job one that I spent a decade training for. But you keep enjoying that cup of tea, Dr. Simmons. You keep “lifeboating” the waves to safety.


  3. After reading that post by Miranda, it’s a wonder that humanities funding isn’t totally zeroed out. LIfeboater isn’t quite right, she’s more of a cruiseliner.


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