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June 20-27, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Searching for Quality Control At UCSC

Scantrons are replacing research papers. Students are receiving high marks for making a comment in discussion section, any comment. Student papers are receiving less scrutiny by overwhelmed teaching assistants. And all this is happening in a university system reserved for the top third of California's students--the ones theoretically being trained as the future leaders of our state. So where does the remedy for this erosion of quality in education lie? Nūz took a trip up to the UCSC campus to find out.

The sun beat down on the hurried graduate students, thick books bearing the names of Foucault, Marx and Friedman interspersed with stacks of papers only rivaled in weight by the piles shoved into overflowing book bags. As representatives of UAW Local 2865, graduate students themselves, spoke on the status of their contract negotiations with the university administration, few of the other students looked up. There were only a few days left to grade tests and papers, and many of those present had their own papers to wrap up.

The graduate students, who act as teaching assistants, tutors and graders at UCSC, were gathered out in the summer heat of Baytree Plaza to reveal the work they usually do "invisibly" behind closed doors. Similar actions were taking place at all UC campuses except Berkeley and Merced.

While UC policy dictates that teaching assistants only work 220 hours per quarter, a growing undergraduate population is making that limit the punch line of jokes among graduate students. With the UCSC Long Range Development Plan calling for 4,500 more students by 2020, workloads for teaching assistants show no sign of letting up.

So what does UAW want to do about the fact that they barely get to meet their students before the quarter is out, let alone work with them intensely to hone their academic skills? For now, they're only asking that union representatives are included in the UC planning process when it comes to class sizes and teaching assistant to student ratios. This demand is part of UAW's contract negotiations with UC, which also includes demands that health-care coverage not be trimmed with rising costs. The current contract expires on Sept. 30.

While the health care issue was resolved at UCSC last month with a promise of full coverage by the dean of graduate studies, Lisa Sloan, UAW head steward J. Guevara is frustrated by what he sees as stalling tactics from the UC when it comes to workload protections.

"The university has moved back and forth on workload protections," he says. "They acknowledge [the legitimacy of] our issues, but they're not coming back with replies."

When UC administration was asked by Nūz about its resistance to having UAW included in the planning process, it gave a curious answer.

"The university maintains that it is the responsibility of UC faculty members to ensure the quality of their classes and that includes class size and actually having TAs and tutors and things like that in the class," says UC Human Resources communications coordinator Nicole Savicka, seeming to imply that quality control is outside the purview of the leaders of the institution.

Since the Long Range Development Plan didn't originate with faculty members, it would also seem that the increases in student population are outside of their control. When this point was brought up Savicka replied, "It's crucial to the functioning of the class that the faculty member teaching the class knows how many students they can handle."

That message doesn't ring true with all faculty members. Community studies professor Paul Ortiz reminded graduate students at the event that faculty were also having more work forced on them due to growth at the campus, but that many of his colleagues were embarrassed to bring up the issue.

"Workload protection is not something UC wants to talk about," says Ortiz. "They want to talk about growth and improving undergraduate education. It's almost like work here gets done mysteriously."

So perhaps, Nūz must conclude, the remedy is still far off.

UAW representatives are concerned that the UC is up to its old tricks--waiting for the summer, when most students are away on vacation and the union will have less leverage through direct action--to make a deal.

It's unclear, however, if the bureaucratic maneuverings of the university office of the president will work this time around. The university system's autonomy is facing a long list of threats.

AFSCME local 3299 recently won a four-year fight aimed at bringing the wages of union-represented custodians up to par with those working in the California State University system. Over that time, the university used a cornucopia of stalling tactics to prevent the money from flowing into the hands of workers.

Additionally, the labor movement on campus is becoming much more coordinated between different unions, student labor groups and student-led antiwar, anti-nuclear and anti-corruption groups on campus.

The UC is facing threats from the California legislature as well. Some legislators are calling for the government to intervene in the UC planning process if officials continue to ignore the effects of growth on surrounding cities.

UC President Robert Dynes was called to the capitol in 2005 to justify systemic kickbacks and rising salaries to UC administrators at the same time student fees were increasing and popular programs were being cut.

In Santa Cruz, lawsuits are shooting back and forth between UCSC and city-affiliated groups in a war of paper that will cost each side hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees before the dust settles.

Just this last month, following a massive email and letter writing campaign, the UCSC administration was forced to negotiate with UC Activist Defense on lessening the academic suspension of prominent student labor and anti-war activist Alette Kendrick.

This latest chapter in the saga of the embattled UC is far from over and will probably extend into the summer months, but linguistics teaching assistant Jesse Saba Kirchner hopes the UC will have learned its lesson from past battles, tone down the arrogant posturing, and simply let UAW sit in on the growth planning process.

"They want to bring in new students," he says. "But the quality of education will go down when they try to shove more students into classrooms with less teaching assistants."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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