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The UC System Is Failing Its Graduate Students

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I have enjoyed the best experience one could possibly hope for while getting a PhD. I feel a little bit guilty for saying that, knowing that it’s a rarity for graduate school to go so well, but the past five and a half years have been relatively smooth ones for me. I was admitted to my two top programs and decided to go to UC Irvine for a PhD in modern Chinese history. I entered in the fall of 2008, before the worst of the financial crisis really hit, which meant that I received a generous locked-in funding package. I found faculty and colleagues who “got” me and haven’t pushed me in the direction of the tenure track, which I’ve always known isn’t for me. I haven’t suffered any significant setbacks or crises that weren’t of my own making (as all of my professors will tell you, I’ve never met a deadline I couldn’t miss). All in all, things have gone better than I’d ever dreamed they would.

And I’ve loved being a grad student at UC Irvine. I’ve studied with amazing professors — not just in the Chinese history program, though they’ve been tops, but also in fields like American history, gender history, and world history. I had the freedom to take classes in those fields because the history department encourages grad students to think beyond their specialties, and while I love studying China, I’m interested in lots of other things, too. I spent three years as part of the editorial team of the “China Beat” blog, a site started by two UCI history professors and their grad students, which enabled me to work with scholars and journalists from around the world. Every year, I talk to prospective graduate students considering UCI and enthuse about the history program at such length that even I realize I need to tone it down.

Here’s what I dislike about UCI: it’s a UC. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be enthusiastic about a university system that has so completely lost sight of its mission.

That California has been systematically dismantling its once world-class public university system isn’t news. A number of UC faculty, including LARB founder and UC Riverside professor Tom Lutz, have written publicly about the cutbacks their schools have suffered and the negative effect they’ve had on the quality of education students receive. A UC Santa Cruz grad student recently crowd-sourced testimony about the difficulties of surviving on a stipend of $17,000/year (just for comparison, Yale History offers its grad students fellowships and teaching assistantships that carry an annual stipend of $26,500). Last week, UCI’s Catherine Liu circulated a somber report detailing the collapse of funding for Humanities projects within the UC system. I have seen many professors leave for jobs at other schools, including Ken Pomeranz, one of my own advisors, who had turned down many attractive offers throughout his 25-year career at UCI but finally decided that the time had come for him to leave the UC system.

I could go on and on and on (let me tell you about professors having the phones removed from their offices!), but here’s the latest blow to graduate education in the UC system, the reason that I felt fired up enough to put fingers to keyboard today: the UC Pacific Rim Research Program, or “PacRim,” has suspended (temporarily? who knows) its full-scale research grants. This year, grad students may only apply for a $5,000 “minigrant” to support their dissertation research. The program will award “10 or more” minigrants in this year’s competition, meaning, most likely, one or perhaps two per UC campus.

Since 1986, the PacRim program has offered faculty and graduate students funding to hold conferences and undertake research projects in any discipline. Scanning the list of PacRim recipients since 2004, I spot many familiar names: former UC graduate students who received PacRim funds for dissertation research and have gone on to hold tenure-track jobs at schools including the University of Hawai’i, Penn State, Duke, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And that’s just in Chinese history, the field I know best; the program has supported hundreds of projects in a wide range of disciplines focusing on other countries around the Pacific Rim. PacRim grants have been especially important for UC’s many international graduate students, who are not US citizens and thus not eligible for the prestigious (and better funded) Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant.

I received a full-scale PacRim grant for the 2012-13 academic year, which supported me during 10 months of dissertation research in Shanghai. There’s no way I would have been able to move here and undertake that research if I hadn’t won the PacRim grant; though I was awarded two other small grants from professional organizations – together they totaled $4500. A round-trip plane ticket generally costs $1200-1500, so at most I could have supported myself for three or four months on the remainder of those grants. Having the PacRim, which awarded me $18,500, made all the difference in the world, even in an expensive city like Shanghai. Getting the majority of my dissertation research done in 10 months was difficult enough; trying to accomplish all of it in three or four months would have simply been impossible. It takes time to develop relationships and establish yourself at the library and archives here, as well as to figure out everything you need and where to find it. I had done a preparatory research trip two summers ago to familiarize myself with what would be available in Shanghai, but I still spent more time than I expected getting myself established once I arrived for my full research year.

What’s the reason for this latest cutback? The PacRim website explains that it’s “Due to the change in leadership at the University of California President’s Office,” which doesn’t really explain anything. (Janet Napolitano thinks lazy PhD candidates should hurry up and get all their research done in one summer, perhaps?) But that explanation does reflect my perception of the primary problem within the UC system: on an individual campus level, I can’t imagine finding a more supportive environment for graduate training. System-wide, though, there is little support from the top, and as a result, resources erode and morale dissipates. Virtually any time I’m in a group of people from two or more UC campuses, the conversation inevitably turns into a bitch fest with an undertone of “You think you have it bad — wait until you hear about how budget cuts have affected my campus!”

What makes news of the PacRim cuts hit me even harder is that I had actually believed that things might be looking up. When Ken Pomeranz left UCI last year, for example, we quickly got approval to hire a new Chinese history professor in his place—something that would have been impossible under the hiring freezes of several years ago. This has enabled UCI’s Chinese history graduate program to remain a leader in the field and attract new graduate students, who don’t receive nearly as much funding as their colleagues in grad programs at private universities, but who are guaranteed support for five years (a guarantee that wasn’t offered to everyone who entered the program with me). I was also optimistic to see that more funding for travel to conferences had been made available to UCI graduate students, since these professional meetings are crucial venues for forming relationships with other scholars and potential employers.

But my optimism has been tempered by the realization that I was lucky to have received a PacRim grant before the program was gutted. The thing is, I shouldn’t feel “lucky” that I managed to slide in just under the wire and have my dissertation research funded. And students who entered after me shouldn’t see those doors slammed shut with no explanation beyond “change at the top,” and no indication of whether or not that funding will ever return. Programs like the PacRim grant have been shrinking for years, but completely cutting out its full-scale research awards sends a clear message that the university system isn’t committed to offering its grad students the resources they need to complete their degrees. UCI might be able to give me money to attend a conference, but without the PacRim grant, I wouldn’t have research findings to present at that meeting.

When I finish my PhD, I know I will be sad to leave UC Irvine behind — but I also know I won’t feel a single pang about no longer being part of the increasingly broken UC system.


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