Why I stay at USC

My last open letter upset some people, and I don’t understand why, really. But it’s worth writing about since there was a mix of genuinely good questions and some of this nonsense right here:

I’ll write about the ones that strike me as legit questions.

  1. Maybe students resent me because I’m implying that I don’t have any power when as a faculty member with tenure, I do have power.

I have no idea where that conclusion comes from based on the actual open letter I wrote. To some degree, the letter had a tone of “Welp, damn, what are you going to do?” since there is not really all that much most of us here at USC can do ex poste after various wrongs have been committed, and the media shitstorm exploded. I suspect this feeling of some powerlessness is pretty common to those of us who have tried to push USC upward and onward only to look down to find ourselves, like Wiley E. Coyote, over yet another cliff edge we did not see. We have to find a way to rebuild. Excuse our construction mess, I guess.

As to whether I think I’m powerless, please. This comment came from a student who has never gotten to know me in class, so I should be patient, but I find I am not in the bloody mood. Over the course of my time here, I have joined and started one struggle after another to try to help and protect students, adjuncts, burgeoning unions, and young faculty. I have been doing this for 13 years, and while I normally find student idealism wonderful, this time the whole “you have power” answer just annoys me. What, ya think I’ve just been watching tv over here all this time until you showed up to remind me of my power? I’m not out of the fight, I just have a black eye and need stitches in my lip, thanks.

I also think it’s important for people to stop romanticizing the power that tenure track faculty have. We have some power, and in many instances. liek my own, quite a bit of privilege, but let’s not act like labor precarity doesn’t affect the tenure track.

A little story about all my power: one of the wonderful African American students in my undergrad class wanted to do our progressive degree program. I wrote her a letter, raved about her to anybody who listened, and sure enough, one day she hugged me and told me she was in. I was elated. Then our chair slunk into my office and said the central uni had nixed her acceptance. Her GPA “didn’t meet standards.” I protested vigorously. I was told, that there was no point in appealing because, as pencil-pushing administrator said, “We have standards.” I told her I would support her appeal, but as white supremacist institutions do to students of color, she got too discouraged to try.**

I was pissed as hell at the time, but then two months later I get to read in the LA Times that USC admits people in if they photoshop their picture into stock sports photos and slip in a check.

 STANDARDS YOU SAY? We’ve got standards? No, we only have standards when it comes to me, a faculty member in the damn university, saying that I believed a student could do the work after having some froshie-year struggles with grades. When it comes to people writing checks here and there, turns out, our standards are quite flexible, except when it comes to how many zeroes need to be on the checks.

If you can’t understand why I am feeling a bit powerless and quite a bit pissed off after that anecdote, then this is the wrong blog for you. Maybe go read something else.

It’s hypocritical to complain about USC while enjoy its elite institutional perks/ go work at a Cal State or community college.

2. It’s hypocritical to complain about USC while enjoying its elite institutional perks. Why stay at USC just to complain about it?

This one is a good question, and it hits home, or else it would if I had just not spent 13 years at USC torturing myself (and sometimes, my students) with the same question. The reasons are manifold, but one has been simple ego: I’ve been told my entire life that I’m not good enough or smart enough to be anywhere, and my getting tenure and full professor at USC–on my terms, without kowtowing or failing to speak out when I felt like somebody needed to–has been my little fuck-you to every elementary school teacher/ guidance school counselor/shitty high school French teacher/brother who told me I “wasn’t good/smart enough” to be a college professor at all, let alone be one at a private university drunk on it own sense of self-importance.

The other reason is simply that I think I do good at USC, despite it all. Even though plenty of people think USC is only rich kids on yachts, it’s not. We have first gen students here who live in their cars and work one job after another to stay in school, and while perhaps they might be better off at a less expensive school, they chose here. The research on elite schools shows that yep, they are status-quo maintaining for kids who come from privilege, but for those who do not come from privilege, the increment in social mobility that comes from going to an elite school can be substantial.

That’s why I stay. I stay to be comfort and support to the students for whom USC is not designed. I stay to try to keep them there, to try to find money for them, to help them find opportunities, and to help them understand the WASPy mores and norms of rich white people are crazy. And that they themselves are not crazy for not fitting into those norms because those were designed to keep people like us out. I stay to try to help them get what they came for. They deserve that support.

I also stay to try to influence the children of privilege to see it. If you have not had the jolly time of trying to teach about race, class, and gender among highly privileged people, you have no idea the blowback. You really don’t. But it’s worth hanging in. Maybe someday it won’t be. But for right now, it is.

3. People at USC aren’t “unbelievably hard-working.” They don’t work any harder than anybody at the Cal States.

Again, why this turn of phrase set anybody off is beyond me. It would be one thing if I had written: “people at USC work unbelievably hard, unlike those lazy, good-for-nothing yoinks at other schools like the Cal States.” Then I could see getting pissy. As it is, I think most people’s money comes hard, and I have never been anything other than very supportive of the Cal State system–or our exemplary community colleges. I believe in education, whether it’s learning art history at a snooty uni like USC or learning how to plumb from a trade tech. Learning, if done for good reasons, is a virtue, and it is often very difficult.

As it is, all I really wanted to express in the entire essay, and in that passage specifically, was that I appreciate how hard everybody at USC seems to work, and that it kinda sucks that our administrators *manage* rather than *lead*. Both are necessary. We’ve had an abundance of management. We’ve had precious little leadership to help us get past feeling bad about all the rotten things that have gone on under our noses while we were chasing the road runner of rankings and funding we were told to. I think lots of us need a sense of mission. I stand by that point.

In sum, some of y’all aren’t listening like planners. Because if you were listening like planners, you’d understand: I’m so pissed about all the scandals because I believe in this place and its potential to transform students’ lives.

I am not an academic free agent looking to optimize my salary, where one place is as good as another. As USC tenured and promoted me, warts and all, it has invested in me and I in it, warts and all. Period. Perhaps all that should be different, but it isn’t, not in my heart. Trust me, I would *love* to be the ideal neoliberal academic, getting offers from one place after another, and extracting what I can from one place and moving to another, dangling my titles and paychecks for one and all. I have as much petty ego and cupidity as the next person. But I’m not that person, mores the pity. I like roots more than I like prestige.

**I hope she goes to UCLA and wins a MacArthur Genius award and a Nobel Prize in something and responds to media questions with “Neener neener USC you suck.”

An open letter to all my fellow colleagues, staffers, and students at USC who aren’t screwing everything up all the time

I feel like I’m getting into pompous David Brooks territory with these various open letters that I have been writing, but I am so heartsore this morning after the terrorism in New Zealand, the loss of a young Thornton student to gun violence, and the latest USC crime against higher education that I need somebody to cheerlead me.

Since all our obscenely overcompensated leaders can’t seem to do anything for us besides send out frantic ass-covering emails, some leadership is in order. You’re stuck with me for this leadership since our real “leaders” are apparently pencil pushers who don’t have enough decency to write to us with the humanity and care we deserve other than to pelt us with emails about how wonderfully they are managing this brand-new public humiliation.

To all of us decent, unbelievably hard-working cogs in the USC machine who haven’t absconded with millions, taken pay-for-admissions, or sexually victimized any of the young people in our care, thank you.

We’re awesome, ya know?

We keep working, especially all the staff and the contract laborers who help the students figure out their financial aid, counsel them, scurry after self-important administrators, and keep this place beautifully maintained with incredible on-campus dining (even if the prices are shocking). USC is amazing in no small part because our staff and services personnel are so professional, friendly, and *competent*.

The screw-ups of those at the top who have ridden off into the sunset with their lovely homes and million-dollar bonuses make all our work invisible to everybody outside the university. We are left to cope with grant foundations who want us to re-earn their trust even though we ourselves did nothing to break it. We are left with students who resent us because our leaders have so degraded the value of their degrees and their athletic achievements with one scandal after another. We deal with snotty jokes about USC isn’t worth bribing your way into, or the moniker “University of Spoiled Children.”

To all of us who have worked this whole time through one unforgivable revelation after another, I salute us. We deserve better. We always have. I wish, when we show up on Monday, we would all at least receive a thank-you from our provosts and our deans and our trustees for hanging tough to make this place work, but that would require them to think about somebody besides themselves.

I don’t think USC is structurally capable of having leaders that think about other people first. That’s why it’s so broken and why it’s been so damn broken for so long that this backlog of scandals will keep Times reporters in content for the next decade or so.

Instead of the raises and combat pay and thank you we deserve, the admin wants a 5 percent cut. It’ll come from our hides, not theirs. It always does. It never doesn’t. The $6billion we killed ourselves to get was for vanity projects, not faculty, staff, or the students.

So here’s to us, friends and colleagues. Here’s to us. I’m proud of us even if our love and care for the institution and the students go otherwise unappreciated. Again, here’s to us, and to hell with them.

It is my ego or my feminism that is irritated?

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that manels and whanels are bad ideas. As one of my favorite colleagues, LaVonna Lewis, says: “You can’t be it if you don’t see it.” Representation matters so much, and in general, I support this line of thinking a great deal.

The problem is that no manels and whanels make a lot of work for people of color and those of us in skirts, and while it’s good to be highlighted and featured during conference presentations, some of this stuff is just straight-up scut service work that does jack to raise your salary.

I have rather unfortunately overscheduled myself a little bit in March and April, largely to prove to myself that I can still do the job I’m getting paid to do, illness and all, and one of these situations came up. One of my very favorite people asked me to do something for a USC student conference: be a moderator.

Now, I remember student conferences and how fun they can be for the students, and it’s very nice to get to know students from all over, not just your own, and what they are working on, as they are usually on the cutting edge of things. And again, one of my favorite people asked. So I said, “sure.”

THEN I get the agenda for the day, and there is a keynote speaker. It’s a white dude. It’s the same white dude that gives the keynote at every single everything and has since I was going to student conferences myself 400 years ago. White dudes always seem to be “keynoting” here and there and everywhere, which is one of the reasons why I hate the word, other than my general dislike of adjectives used as verbs, and the self-important way dudes always say “I’m keynoting at this upcoming thing.”

Now, in reality, this gig is a very nice thing for this gentleman to do. He’s a very accomplished scholar, and by all accounts, he’s wonderful to and with students. He’s a genuinely good man from everything I have ever known.

BUT: WHY THE ACTUAL FECK AM I ALWAYS GOOD ENOUGH TO MODERATE BUT NEVER GOOD ENOUGH TO DO THE KEYNOTE IN MY OWN FECKING HOUSE? WHY AM I ALWAYS ASK TO DO HOUSEKEEPING BUT NOT THE CENTER ROLE?

And to myself: HOW MANY TIMES ARE YOU GOING TO DO YOURSELF OUT OF A DAY’S WRITING TO DO NICE SERVICE WORK FOR PEOPLE WHO DO NOT APPRECIATE YOU ENOUGH TO LET YOU STAND IN A SPOTLIGHT?

Part of this, I am pretty sure, is a Baby Boomer-Gen X thing. The guy has been around a long time, and Gen Xers like me in planning, like lots of fields, have been squeezed into some nonexistence by the fact that many urban planning departments started up with a big set of hires in the 70s and 80s, guaranteeing Boomer scholars a long time to dominate. Meanwhile, those of us who have come after have been a bit like Prince Charles, keen to do our bit but never really being wanted or needed since we already had Boomer Scholarz! Boomer Star Scholarz galore!

In reality, I am a full professor at an elite university (God don’t even get me started on the cheating crap from yesterday; it’s all so gross), so all of this is just so much whining. But part of me is outraged because I think this tendency to ask me to participate but not dominate is the desire to avoid manels AND elevated women’s voices. And that pisses me off.

It could also be because I’m not a very good public speaker. But I feel like I’ve done some good ones.

Or maybe it’s all just my bruised ego.

Maybe I’ll just say no to everything from here on out and fully commit to my life as a grumpy old hermit.

Decolonizing space and the body with Carolina Caycedo, Marina Magalhaes, and Carolina S. Sarmiento from @USCPrice

For two years running, I have co-sponsored an Urban Growth Seminar at USC that focusses on radical urbanism. This year’s entry was excellent, just like last year’s, and I’m thrilled to share the YouTube of the event. I think students learned a lot, and it’s been a real education to me. A big thank-you to the panelists and to our terrific student organizers: Richard Aviles, Lynette Guzman, Taylor Relich, and to our staffer, Jennifer Hong. You are all such gifts to planning at USC.

Here is a link to the full program on YouTube. I’m proud to have helped make this happen!

From USC’s materials:

Policies, from redlining to zoning, are practices that continue to colonize land and impact the life and cultures of people of color. Decolonization was born as a liberatory response to the hurtful legacy of colonization. Panelists discussed their work, the hurtful consequences of development, and the power of art as a participatory method within the planning profession.

Carolina Caycedo is a UK born Colombian artist, living in Los Angeles. Her artistic practice has a collective dimension to it in which performances, drawings, sculptures, and videos are not just an end result, but rather part of the artist’s process of research and acting. Through work that investigates relationships of movement, assimilation and resistance, representation and control, she addresses contexts, groups, and communities that are affected by development and extractivism. Caycedo is currently Artist in Residence at the Palm Springs Museum of Art. She held residencies at The Huntington Gardens, Libraries and Art Collections (2018), and at DAAD artists-in-Berlin program (2012). She was included in the Hammer Museum’s 2018 Made in LA, and has received funding from Creative Capital, California Community Foundation, Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Harpo Foundation, Art Matters, Colombian Culture Ministry, Arts Council UK, and Prince Claus Fund.

Marina Magalhaes is a border-crosser, bridge-builder, and dance-and-change-maker from Brazil based in Los Angeles. She has shared her unapologetically feminist and latinx work throughout the US, Brazil, Cuba, Botswana, South Africa, and France earning her an LA Weekly Theater Award for Best Choreography. Magalhães is a graduate of UCLA’s World Arts & Cultures/Dance Department and a Lecturer at UC Riverside, a Resident Choreographer with Viver Brasil Dance Co, and a Resident Artist at Pieter Space in LA (teaching the weekly Dancing Diaspora class funded by California Arts Council). She is currently pursuing her MFA Dance degree at University of the Arts guided by Thomas DeFrantz and Donna Faye Burchfield, projected to graduate August 2019.

Carolina S. Sarmiento is an activist scholar and urban planner dedicated to interconnecting organizing, scholarship and the struggles for justice in the city. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She joined the Department of Civil Society and Community Studies in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) in 2014. Carolina received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine in Planning, Policy and Design and received her MA from UCLA in Urban Planning. She has her BA Worlds Arts and Cultures from UCLA. Her research and teaching examines community-based planning, transnational development, and the creation and destruction of new democratic processes and cultural spaces by and for working class communities of color. She was one of the founders of el Centro Cultural de Mexico’s first center, an organization and radical space in Santa Ana, California, where local community work for immigrant rights, anti-gentrification efforts and cultural autonomy. It continues to serve as a community organizing hub in Orange County.

How historians should engage with ‘the public’

I follow a lot of historians on Twitter because I am a big consumer of history books for my leisure reading. Here recently, Max Boot has stirred the pot by writing one shallow essay after another chiding historians for failing to be more engaged. I am not going to link because he’s gotten more clicks out of this than it deserves, and all you really need to do to get the flavor is repeat every “ivory tower academic” complaint you’ve ever heard in your life on a loop, and you get the idea.

From my perspective, historians seem to be to be genuinely, deeply engaged in discussing both their finding and their craft on television, podcasts, social media, and documentary film-making. Historians are writing books, and they are writing a level of prose quality and accessibility that should be the envy of many other disciplines. What else historians are meant to do here leaves me at a loss.

I suppose historians could break into people’s homes, tie people to chairs using those scary plastic cuffs all the serial killers on television have, and then subject their victims to lectures on US and world history, followed by a quiz, but I think that’s going a mite far.

Americans appear to have valorized willful ignorance of men like Donald Trump (he’s such a big strong man, he makes reality, my big-daddy hero sent to own the libs). I’m not sure what one discipline does to fight that. We should all be confronting it and embodying the virtues of knowledge. (And yeah, I know there’s classism embedded in that statement, but I believe education is a human right. IOW, I didn’t put the classism there; it was there when I showed up, and I seek to remake it.)

One last point here: not everybody should be pressured to be a media darling or a public intellectual. That’s just not a comfortable or desired role for many scholars, and we should stop shaming them for not being engaged in activities that don’t fit their own goals and personalities. This is ESPECIALLY true given that we’ve discovered that some of our relentlessly fame-seeking public intellectuals are horrid people (Dersh), while others appear to be the living embodiment of their own ideas (Cornell West, bell hooks).

Let those who want to be involved in the hurly-burly of public life do their thing and for God’s sakes let the quiet scholars who wish to spend their time with their students and research do their job the way that seems right to them. Universities already provide outsized rewards for public intellectuals no matter how shallow they are and no matter how simplistic and unchallenging their prescriptions are (and, in fact, the more pablum-y, the better, as there will be no real challenge to any status quo).

There’s plenty of room for everybody’s style in learning and writing. Historians are doing great work, and maybe the rest of us should shut up and read them rather than expecting them to teach us complicated things in sound bytes.

Ricardo’s Scarcity Principle(s) and why YIMBYs should care

Usual caveat: I am not a supply skeptic. I am a “don’t assume simple solutions to complex problems” person. Supply and demand occur in contexts, and those have an unfortunately large effect on how things turn out.

Modern economists, even those who take Ricardo seriously like Thomas Piketty, tend to be a bit too hasty to conclude that Ricardo was wrong about the scarcity principle of land. In 1817 On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, he tackled the problem he saw about the increasing scarcity of agricultural land vis-a-vis growing populations. He was not, unlike Malthus or Smith, willing to conclude that more laborers were the problem. He suggested that increasing the number of people who needed ag land, along with the decreasing marginal productivity of extra land units, meant that adding additional units into production would still, depending on the rate of demand increase, result in increasing scarcity, rents, wealth and market dominance among the land-owning class.

Sound familiar? Fans of Henry George might find a lot to like in Ricardo.

We should point out, as Piketty does, that Ricardo wasn’t the only person observing the economic problems looming in continental Europe, notably France, with growing labor pools driving down wages and driving up rents. Arthur Young wrote about similar themes in his essay, drawing similar conclusions.

Why do economists generally think Ricardo was wrong? Piketty says as much in Capital. I’m not sure why, as they have to know that Ricardo’s situation was pretty exceptional. Not long after Ricardo, Young, and Malthus, ag land suffered a severe decline. But I doubt it was because there was some sort of market correction where landowners decided to start supplying more accessible units to people: early 1800s, ag tech and practices are changing, informed by Enlightenment science (for both good and ill) and better land is becoming more productive so that marginal ag land becomes excess supply, losing value quickly. I suspect prime ag land had a small dip in value for a bit and then continued to rise, and that the overall decline was an average effect. (Also see: more ag prodo getting shipped farther as the century moves on). The point being, we just began needing far less ag land as time wore on, something that continues today.

Ricardo’s point about increasing scarcity even with increasing supply matters to our discussion because it’s one reason why I think short-term effects of more housing supply are just about impossible to predict without better empirical models that consider the possibilities. Ricardo in Principles allowed that when there are extreme shortages of something, a new increment of supply would not drive prices down, but up. The problem is, like a lot of smart fellows back then, he didn’t have reviewers on his ass to explain his thinking there, so he doesn’t. Not very much anyway. But I think there are some key ideas in the theory, especially given Freemark’s counterintuitive findings in Chicago. (Lots of us didn’t feel like they were counterintuitive, but that’s ok.)

Here’s my thought experiment for the day: under what conditions are we likely to see Ricardo’s odd price responses to supply?

When there is population growth in a place, accommodating that population growth any number of things. I’ll collapse it to two scenarios for simplicity in the argument:

Scenario 1, the good marginal context for new supply. In this scenario, the shortage is not that bad or nonexistent, so at the margin, new supply disciplines landlords and we see slower rent increases, if not softening rents entirely.

In this instance, the shortage isn’t holding back any real urban productivity effects we get from including more people, and the increment in new people isn’t having any measurable deleterious impact on wages. These are relatively simple moves up and down demand curves.

I suspect this is why we see so little action in Freemark’s study in Chicago. Chicago’s hole isn’t as deep as the coastal markets, and there are all sorts of reasons why even there, rents and land values might not go down in ways easy to measure to social science studies. For one, prices are only one way landlords can compete. Small marginal changes in local demand might prompt landlords to market more, add a new service, or just stop acting like jerks about things like taking key money or any of the side hustles landlords with sufficient market power can grab.

Scenario 2: The more dicey context for new supply. In this scenario, which I’d say quite a few coastal cities are likely in, the shortage is profound. New housing supply is, as they say, a drop in the bucket. Housing shortages are cutting into the overall productivity of the metro area because they are dampening labor productivity by keeping productive laborers out. New supply is likely to go in at a market rate, which is expected at or even above where local landlords are, and they take their cues from the higher rents, not the possibility that their unit is going to sit empty. Why not? There is still no real supply competition because the shortage is so grave that any real price competition is years out, if ever. If anything, they have a motivation to grind harder now in anticipation that supply competition may be coming, but not for some time yet.

I’ve written before that infill housing is likely to increase local amenities and local landlord’s expectations about what they might charge. Various people have argued with me that the new supply effects should easily outweigh new amenity effects and that new supply should discipline landlords. That is entirely possible in the first scenario. In the second scenario, that is not necessarily true. Moreover, productivity effects are not amenity effects. Productivity effects are the bump land prices get because of getting spillovers from their location in an economically productive region. Amenity effects are the bump in price parcels get from being located reasonably proximate to nice things. Both can and likely do happen with new supply, and their size relative to any possible supply competition effects strike me as much more significant in places where landlords are secure price setters.

In the first scenario, by contrast, I could easily see supply competition cancel out amenity effects. I have less confidence it would cancel productivity effects in the long term across business cycles. That’s another essay for another day.

Laid atop these differences are submarket problems. This is another layer of complexity, but suffice it to say, we don’t have great information on the degree to which locations are substitutes in residential location decisions. At all. Again, added complexity for another day.

And again, this is not “don’t build.” That just makes the hole bigger. Instead, I’m of the “help low-wage laborers across the board with rental supports, unions, and a robust welfare state” argumentation.