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.



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.

Why endlessly focussing on the faults of female politicians is a problem.

Let’s be clear: Feinstein did and said the wrong thing. I don’t like a lot of her positions. I absolutely think we should listen to kids, in politics and outside of it. They are part of society, they have rights, and they should have voice. No question.

So I created a shitstorm on my Twitter feed by basically saying, look, I don’t care if Feinstein was nice to the kiddies or not.

For one, she’s kinda right. We aren’t getting the GND. She’s wrong about why not, but we’re not getting it because we don’t have the votes.

But actually, the reason I spoke up is that WE FOUND OUT THAT OUR SECRETARY OF LABOR GAVE A SWEETHEART DEAL TO A GUY WHO RAN A CHILD RAPE RING YESTERDAY. Oh, and our President defended him and say Acosta has done a swell job as Sec of Labor and “all that was a long time ago.”

Yeah, by now some of the girls they raped will be all of 19.

Was that in my Twitter feed? Nope, my Twitter feed was 80 percent Feinstein and 20 percent Klobucher. BUT SHE ABUSED HER STAAAAAAAAAAF.

Yeah, and? ACOSTA made a deal with Trump/Clinton/Dersh buddy Jeffery Epstein that GAVE PERMANENT IMMUNITY TO ANYBODY IMPLICATED. I REPEAT. PERMANENT IMMUNITY. That meant that as part of that plea deal, all his buddies who passed around young women–some as young as 13 and 14–would be entirely free from questioning.


Fortunately, the courts don’t have their heads up their asses and rendered that plea deal illegal.

I wouldn’t have complained if my feed had been like 60 percent Feinstein and 10 percent Klobucher and 30 percent Epstein. But I had NOTHING on Epstein. Nothing. Let me clear about how big a deal this is:

He plead the fifth about the PRESIDENT OF THE US. We have these randy old bastards passing girls as young as 14 around like the Sunday sprouts, and you want me to bbe super duper extra special outraged about Feinstein/Klobucher/HRC/AOC/Warren/whoever.

Then there is this nonsense:

WHAT THE ACTUAL F IS WRONG WITH YOUR BRAIN? First of all, by spending all of your time nattering on about female Democrats, you drown out discussion of CHILD RAPE in this instance. I agree, abusing staff sucks. CHILD RAPE SUCKS MORE.

By spending 100 percent of our time on Democratic women, we erase the fact that our PRESIDENT RAN A “MODELING AGENCY” that brought girls to Jeffrey Epstein. By all means, let’s fill everybody’s eyeballs with our righteous indignation about women who should be better.

The idea that we can “perfect” women by endlessly discussing their faults is a strong theme in the patriarchy, and it’s horse shit. Believing that THEY should be subjected to criticism while you “give up” on Republicans is the height of political cowardice.

Should we primary Feinstein if she runs again? Sure, ok, I’m in. I’m sure Newsom and the California Dems have somebody who would be a great stand-in if we want to demand her resignation. Fine. See? Handled that in a sentence.

Should Klobucher resign? I dunno yet. Maybe. If we demand her resignation, does Walz have somebody good to replace her?

She sounded damn good to me in her town hall. That’s exactly the sort of women that Russians would hate a lot. I need a little more time. Why? BENGHAZI! BUT HER EMAILSSSSSSS. That’s why I double-scrutinize allegations leveled at women. Sorry about that. Let’s, by all means, hold her accountable–after we get the full amount of evidence and not the “whisper network.”


Maybe all the California HSR hot takes are confusing because there are no good hot takes to be had

Gavin Newsom announced yesterday that he was going to keep supporting HSR as governor, but that he committed to finishing the Fresno-Merced segment and is, for now, letting go of the likely secondary phases of getting the service into LA and San Francisco.  I think that’s a fair representation of what he said.

There were various hot-takes, with coverage being all over the map as “this is Newsom walking back on HSR” to “this is Newsom redoubling the state’s commitment to the project!”  It left my head swimming by the end from reading all the hot takes from Transit Twitter yesterday.  (It is kinda funny that my iPad autocorrect changes hot takes to “hostages.” So, so meta.) 

Beloved colleague Marlon Boarnet pointed us to Henry Grabar’s nice piece up on Slate about the general feasibility of HSR in the US, and how most places aren’t the disaster that California currently is. He interprets Newsom’s comments as walking back the project. I am less sure. I also don’t agree that California HSR is a “disaster.” All projects, large and small, are messy and take more time and resources than you want them to, and evaluating most in the middle is a mug’s game. I reserve “disaster” for events where people die, just like I won’t allow for their to be any “war on” language when there aren’t tanks rolling.

 I think the general problem with trying to interpret Newsom’s comments as a definitive pro or con is maybe that he doesn’t know himself, and he probably shouldn’t.  We probably shouldn’t, either. Grabar is right in that these projects can be feasible, but it requires us to make good governance decisions along the way, or at least not totally f-ed up governance, and our federal leadership right now is….entirely screwed up. And could be for another six years. California isn’t getting anything out that administration unless Trumpie’s big donors here want it.

In theory, California could finance the entire project by itself. In practice, we still don’t have a really stable, sufficient funding source for the capital.   And that adds a lot to the capital risk, especially with putting lots of up-front investment into places that aren’t likely to be big markets for the service, like Central Valley cities.

The decision made years ago to start construction in the Central Valley created some path dependencies we can’t hop out of easily now.  There were benefits and costs to that choice, and it’s useless to repeat now the concerns I raised then because that brings crying over spilled milk to new levels. It’s probably better to acknowledge that Newsom’s signaling that we are going to finish the “Valley to Valley” segment first attempts to follow through on delivering at least some of the project’s envisioned benefits: the construction work is good for the people who get it (local benefits), and if our wildest dreams come true, what gets built will be operational and inspirational in a few years, and the rest of the state will clamor for their projects.

Less optimistically, we will spend a big chunk of change and get very little in the way of riders and the project becomes a poster boy for rail boondoggle among rail’s persistent opposition.

The fact that Newsom didn’t go there suggests something important: this project is less of a governing priority than things like housing where he has come out swinging. He’s kicking the can down the road a bit on HSR, and I think not really in a bad way.

Later, perhaps, when the project starts to get finished, people may get some clarity on how the state shouldn’t fund infrastructure systems on a few bond measures and cap-and-trade money that is going bounce around from year to year. To create a statewide network, we need a dedicated, long-term funding source, period.

I can say it out loud because I have tenure and I’m not running for office. The reason why this project has been fragile from the beginning was the unwillingness of its proponents to get that question answered first.

Unfortunately, “later” in a time of climate crisis is bad, but as far as I can tell, Newsom doesn’t really have a lot of choices here. If he does, I’d be glad to hear of them.

Helping students with anxiety and managing yours

Twitter had an upset last week when a professor of dubious decency wrote an ill-advised email mocking students’ disability accommodations that were designed to help a student with anxiety during an exam because great professor bro felt like his “exams were intended to cause anxiety.”

There was a lot of shaming this dude, which he deserves, but social media is often not very good at anything past that, and if there were long threads on the issues that I missed, I apologized–I am also sad because I probably could have learned from them. If you have any to share with me, please do.

In planning, it’s very hard to move up the career ladder with social anxiety, so you have to learn to cope or you will be stuck hard; the more you move up the ladder, the more public the job becomes. (Ditto with professoring). We don’t want a field to be nothing but extroverts who love to be the center of attention, talking and performing, though Lord bless them, I have hidden behind many of them. Quiet, shy people have a lot of give if we make space and help them occupy it.

I dealt with my social anxiety over the years as a consultant and teacher by powering through, and it was difficult. And it also leads to me an understanding: you want better answers to helping students learn to function with anxiety than “SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP” and “Oh, you poor dear thing, you aren’t capable.” The latter is not what student accommodations do, but I do tend to think that some profs, once they see the anxiety in a student, tend to withdraw. It’s messy, and if they don’t push they won’t be guilty of anything, but they won’t be responsible for anything either.

To wit, students with disabilities need mentors just like everybody else does, and just because a teacher has or has not experienced what a student has does not release them from their responsibilities to help raise up other people. There’s far too much of this damn “I can only mentor young white male geniuses or pretty pretty little white girls with pleasing manners” nonsense from white male scholars. Sometimes things get messy, and that means when you have been fortunate to have a life that has allowed to thrive, your duty is to pull others along with you, best you can. (That last rider is important).

This is different from assuming that you as an abled, white or cis-male mentor can meet a students’ needs. Students do need people who understand their struggle, and cis-white people in particular don’t get it and there’s no reason why oppressed students should trust them. I try anyway on all sorts of dimensions; there are things that all people need, regardless, and that I can help anybody with. You need somebody to promote your work? I can do that. You need a little loan to get home to see your people so you don’t go cray? I can help with that. Need a coffee? Broke but craving a princess-y lunch? I love princess-y lunches and am happy for the company. Just because white people can’t understand everything a black student goes through doesn’t mean they are off the hook for supporting and loving in ways that they can.

You don’t walk–buts lotsa dudes do, as evidenced in this bullshit headline: Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women. I knew this was coming. There’s been a lot fixing that headline to great effect, but my fix is “Some men can’t mentor women unless they hold all the power.” Power between a student and a mentor need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor, and it’s wrong to act that it is.

More pragmatically, mentoring people with *difficult* struggles (not just, hey-hook-polished-me-up-with-your-high-powered-buds) takes time. It takes time from you being the glorious you you can be when you don’t help your brothers and sisters pick up their load. That means two things. Those of us who feel this duty, especially mentors of color helping students cope with oppression, get overloaded. And it means students often get short shrift from the most “famous” faculty mentors because one way you get famous is by investing in yourself constantly rather than investing your time in other people. Striking this balance is a tough one in the academy: you can do more for students externally the more famous you are, so if you *dont‘* take care of that side of things, you will be a well-intentioned support without entry to the elite professional networks students need to get ahead. Go too far that way and you become useless in other ways, cherry-picking easy students who are likely to get where they are going anyway.

This is all by way of saying that I’m really grateful for student accommodations. They give me a place to start with students when, without them, neither the student nor I may know how to best go forward. With learning to live with anxiety or anything else, you take things in small doses, controlling the situation so that you can learn to adapt as you go. With every student, disability or no, good teachers recognize where a student is and work from there.

BONUS Story: David Sloane has been a wonderful mentor to me. Once he asked me to go grab dinner at a new place on campus he liked. I thought I was pretty good at hiding how I lose it when my routine gets disrupted, but we got upstairs to the place and it was Lemonade, which is cafeteria style. OMG I HAVE TO MAKE CHOICES FAST AND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE I WILL PROBABLY DIE. So I am standing there hating myself for being worried about something normal people just get on with doing, and David starts in explaining what is there, what he usually does, and I find myself getting like entirely pissed that he is treating me like a five-year old, like I don’t need help, like I can do this…and then after I get over that rush of anger at him and myself, I felt so cared for. I had been seen when I had spent so many years covering up my problems–these situations were prime moments of emotional abuse in school and in family (because who for chrissakes can explain Maxwell’s electromagnetic field equation when she is 10 but can’t freaking manage a cafeteria?)–and he just made everything all right with simple, loving leadership. No wonder USC makes him do every leadership thing it can.

An Open Letter to Mr. Stanley Gold, USC Board of Trustees

Dear Mr. Gold:

The LA Times attributed this statement to you:

That prompted a trustee, Stanley Gold, who managed the late Roy Disney’s investment holdings, to issue his own letter Tuesday afternoon, deriding the professors as “know-nothing vigilantes.”

from the LA Times

You said that in a letter? When you had time to edit and rethink? Any chance they misquoted you? Because I truly hope it was a misquote. Out of context, maybe?

We who formed the concerned faculty group know this university intimately. We are here, teaching, day in and day out. Whose writing, publishing, and teaching got us those coveted higher rankings? I don’t think it was yours, and as effective as our administrators have been at boosting our signal, we, the faculty and our students, delivered the goods.

Speaking about us as though we are mere uppity employees diminishes both us and the institution.

Do we know Board politics? No. But we shouldn’t. Your comments and the behavior reported in the Times about a small number of men on the Board of Trustees reflect self-involved, rich men’s egos rather than the leadership we need. We need people on our board who understand two things:

  • the point of the university is not to annoint elites but to advance the human endeavor for enlightenment; and
  • a truly great university faculty is marked not by its deference to CEO-style leaders like Nikias, but by its intellectual and moral fearlessness in pursuing what is true and what is good.

Perhaps I am a fool in the world of the 21st century to believe these things, but I do.

This university has real problems. In addition to the decades-long powderkeg of sexual misconduct, our students, staff, and faculty suffer from crushing housing costs in Los Angeles. Some are homeless. Our contract employees have few benefits and little connection to our community. Just about every year, a student on campus takes their own life.

When you look at these problems, whether Jim Ellis’ feelings got hurt on his way to collect three more years of his lavish salary falls, deservedly, into the “cry me a river” problem category. I am sorry if he feels he was badly treated. That’s unfortunate, but worthy of two months’ squabbling, let alone airing the Board’s dirty laundry to the Times, it is not.

Less important than our real problems, certainly, is the fact that I want you to know that far from being a wild-eyed mob looking to exact vengeance Nikias or any other men, the concerned faculty agonized over how to approach the BoT about our concerns. The day I signed the original letter was one of the worst days of my professional life, and it wasn’t because I was worried about my job.

Mr. Gold, signing that letter broke my heart. It broke my heart.

But it was the right thing to do. I am sorry you do not see that.

Martin Luther King wrote a really important piece of political philosophy

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is an extended argument about the relationship between law and justice, the difference between those two terms and the duties to resist and change unjust laws. It is a call to action: he takes to tasks his fellow pastors and white moderates who are wringing their hands instead of joining him and his peers in the fight to change unjust laws and practices.

He helps moderns understand Plato’s Crito about when, perhaps, one should choose solidarity over individual right, and when you should choose the latter, and why time and patience can be oppression’s most powerful allies.

Much gets emphasized about MLK on his birthday: he gets quoted out of context, then we have lots of fights about how people have tried to defang him when he was really a revolutionary who stood not just for justice in civil rights, but also against poverty. I’m sure those worried about his cooptation are right.

One thing that gets lost sometimes, however, in that back and forth, is his sheer brilliance. “Letter from” is a masterpiece of composition and political thought that deserves a place in any class on justice theory.

You can find it here.

I don’t know what else to say about Dr. King other than, like lots of Black people destroyed by white violence, he should have had the rest of his time.