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.”