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Taking the Measure of the UC System: Equal Campuses or Three Tiers?

My account of these alternative criteria does, as readers will see, lend support to a vision of the UC system as characterized by a widespread distribution of excellence, at least where the eight established campuses are concerned

As indicated by my recent contribution to the Chronicle of Higher Education (“U. of California Cuts: A Faculty Member’s Dispatch from the Front Lines,” July 29), I like to think of the institution I belong to as a constellation of excellent campuses, which are interdependent, together make a whole that is more than a sum of their parts, and which have a lot in common with one another. UCSF stands apart from the nine general campuses, since it is just a medical school. And obviously the other schools have their distinctive aspects. Berkeley and UCLA have been in operation the longest, have bigger endowments, and have more departments that show up in top ten lists, for example, while UC Merced is still just in its start-up phase.


Nevertheless, as I see it, the similarities between them are more significant than the differences. A totally different vision of the system, however, is put forward in a pair of recent letters, signed by over twenty UC San Diego department chairs, in one case, and a group of UCLA sociologists, in the other. This commentary is a response to those letters, which insist that the system’s 9 main campuses fall neatly into three sets: a triumverate of “flagships” (Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD), a trio of middle tier schools (Davis, Irvine, Santa Barbara), and a bottom stratum (Santa Cruz, Riverside, Merced).

Why should anyone not teaching in the UC system care about these letters? Well, two issues they raise may have only limited interest beyond California’s borders. These concern resources (the letters claim that the pain associated with the current drastic reductions in state funding should not be distributed evenly, for the “flagships” deserve to be protected from the most severe cuts) and morale (the letters make distressing reading to those of us affiliated with other campuses). But there is an aspect of the letters that has relevance for historians and scholars in some closely related fields who teach in other parts of the country or in California but not at UC campuses, especially when they are read in conjunction with other texts that have grown out of the budget crisis. This is because of a worrisome tendency in these texts for the achievements in disciplines such as ours to drop out of the picture.

For example, both the UCSD letter and some related newspaper articles have referred to the number of Nobel Prize winners on a campus as a self-evident indication of its stature. The presence of faculty who attract big grants has been mentioned periodically as a key marker of the caliber of a campus. And in defending his decision to offer a newly hired Chancellor a much larger salary than her predecessor had received, despite the tough budgetary times, Mark Yudof, President of the UC system, pointed out that the candidate had many patents to her name.

There is surely a place for all of these criteria in assessments of individual people and how research universities stack up, but if they are the only ones brought into view then what scholars in all humanities and most social science disciplines do outside of the classroom will remain below the radar. It is not obvious what alternative metrics there are to turn to, especially if one lacks confidence in U.S. News and World Reports rankings, which can be useful in a very general way but often reflect the past more than the present caliber of a department. Below I’ll offer up five criteria that seem worth taking into account, each with relevance for fields left out in the cold by the Nobel Prize-Big Grants-Patents approach.

My account of these alternative criteria does, as readers will see, lend support to a vision of the UC system as characterized by a widespread distribution of excellence, at least where the eight established campuses are concerned (Merced is so new, it is not fair to judge it yet). I admit that I have an obvious stake in seeing the system in these terms, since not only do I teach at an allegedly “second tier” campus (Irvine), but I have a B.A. from one that is supposedly a “third tier” one (Santa Cruz).

My sense of the system is not just based on my experiences with those two UC campuses, however, as I have studied or given talks at five other ones. I also co-edit a series with University of California Press, an academic publisher that benefits (as our series has) from advice that comes from a faculty editorial board whose members are drawn from all UC branches, not just two or three (and some of the best comments on works in our series have come from board members based at schools that are not accorded “flagship” status by the letters alluded to above).

One final prefatory comment is in order: I spent a year as a visiting associate professor of history at UCSD. And my memory of my time on the La Jolla campus is that of working at a very fine institution—but not being on a campus that seemed in a totally different league from Irvine or Santa Cruz (one of the three parts of the UC system that, according to the UCSD letter, might even need to be closed down completely in the future, in order to protect the viability of the flagships). It was thus particularly surprising to me to see that the chair of the UCSD History department, the unit of the La Jolla campus I know best, was one of those who signed that school’s “just three flagships” letter.

Here are the five alternative criteria I have in mind, followed by some brief comments on how different UC campuses fare according to them:

Where the Presidents Are
One sign of distinction for a faculty member is election to head a major scholarly organization. The UC system does well on this score, partly but by no means only because of what happens at Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD. Consider the Association for Asian Studies (the world’s leading scholarly organization of its kind). Relatively recent AAS presidents have included a Berkeley historian of Japan, a UCLA Koreanist, and a Davis China specialist. And the slate of two finalists for the position of AAS vice-president (who would become president automatically a year later) includes a UCSC faculty member.

If this Santa Cruz faculty member wins, moreover, while this would be a novel thing for the campus where the AAS is concerned, she would not be the first head of a major professional organization to hail from this allegedly “bottom tier” UC campus. At one point, for instance, its faculty included the presidents of both the American Anthropological Association and the American Ethnological Society.

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UCI does not figure in the AAS presidency story, but then, again, neither does UCSD. And Irvine does do well if one focuses on a very select group of UC faculty members: those who have been presidents of two different associations. Among historians in this small set, one who comes to mind is UCLA’s Joyce Appleby, a past president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and also of the American Historical Association, but another is UCI’s Vicki Ruiz, a past president of the American Studies Association and the OAH).

Where the Flagship Journals Are
I used to teach at Indiana University, where pride was taken in the presence on campus of both the American Historical Review (AHR) and the Journal of American History (JAH), and I now edit the Journal of Asian Studies, so I am doubtless prone to put more emphasis than some on periodicals as markers of prestige. Still, it does seem logical to think that “flagship” campuses should be where “flagship journals” tend to end up. Here, again, there are Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD examples to point to, but also a broader UC phenomenon to note. At least one supposedly “non-flagship” campus, Irvine, for example, seems to be more than pulling its weight just now. Not only is it home to the JAS, the most highly regarded publication of the AAS, but also to the American Anthropologist, which is among the world’s leading publications in that discipline and is currently edited by UCI’s Tom Boellstorf, and the Law and Society Review, which is currently edited by UCI’s Carroll Seron.

Where the Prominent Writers Are
There are established writers known for the elegance and power of their prose at various UC campuses, but the group at the allegedly bottom tier Riverside is surely among the strongest. Mike Davis, who writes for the London Review of Books and is widely considered one of the most gifted stylists writing about the past, is there. So, too, is Susan Straight (whose works of fiction have won many honors, including a California book award), prize-winning poet Christopher Buckley, and Perry Link (a contributor to the New York Review of Books who is known for his elegant translations of Chinese works of fiction and reportage).

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Where the Up-and-Coming Writers Are
When Pankaj Mishra, the London-based novelist and prize-winning essayist, came to Irvine as a visitor last spring, we asked him if there was a faculty member from a neighboring UC campus he wanted us to invite to join him on stage for a public discussion of literary trends. He responded not by suggesting someone from UCLA or UCSD (though he easily could have, given that both schools have excellent authors), but by requesting that we ask Laila Lalami, a young writer originally from Morocco, to come to our campus from UCR. Her first book was enthusiastically reviewed in many venues, including the New York Times (“poetic”), the Washington Post (“beautiful and bracing”), and Secret Son, and the New York Review of Books (Mishra wrote a glowing review of it for them). And her new book (a novel published the day before she came to Irvine) is now earning high praise.

There are many up-and-coming writers at Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD, of course, but Lalami’s presence at Riverside suggests that this is yet another criterion where the alleged “flagship” definitely do not have a monopoly on excellence nor even necessarily stand clearly apart from the pack. Mishra’s time at Irvine provided additional evidence of this. For while various UC campuses have faculty who write for high profile venues such as the Times Literary Supplement (London) and, I doubt that many of them have graduate students who do this. And yet, while Mishra was on campus, two graduate students he met were TLS contributor Kate Merkel-Hess (who was just finishing up her doctorate in the History Department) and contributor Robert Anasi (who recently began working toward a doctorate in Literary Journalism within the Irvine English Department).

Where the Academic Prizes Go
Berkeley, UCLA and UCSD historians often win awards, but the list of UC faculty members who have won, for example, the Bancroft Prize (one of the discipline’s top honors) is not just a three-campus tale. Past winners include not only historians from the supposed “flagship” schools but also Alan Taylor of Davis and UCSB’s Pekka Hamalainen.

The distribution of UC winners of the John K. Fairbank award (the top honor that the American Historical Association gives for books on East Asian History) is similarly broad, for faculty from UCLA, Berkeley, and three other campuses have won it, the most recent being Susan Mann of Davis. Mentioning two prize winners in particular, moreover, allows me to return to give a specific example of why I do not feel that I am now teaching at a campus that is a clear step below the one where I spent a year as a visiting associate professor. When I taught at La Jolla, I felt honored to be filling in for Joseph Esherick, who had been awarded the Fairbank Prize for his superb study of the Boxer Uprising. But I am no less honored that since coming to UCI I have had as a colleague Kenneth Pomeranz—the only person at any UC campus, indeed anywhere in the world, who has won the Fairbank prize twice.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. He is author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

Republished with permission from the History News Network.