How budget cuts in California could impact Chinese studies





[Jeffrey N. 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).]

Budget cuts at the University of California have generated a lot of attention, especially after a plan of across-the-board salary cuts, combined with mandatory furlough days, was recently announced. How will such drastic financial measures threaten the strengths of that system and other large public universities? Are certain fields of study in the humanities and social sciences especially vulnerable to state cuts because those areas of inquiry—even when dealing with topics of broad importance—rarely get large infusions of national, foundation, or corporate monies of the sort that routinely support work done in areas such as engineering and medicine?

One way to begin to answer such big questions is to consider a specific case with which I am intimately familiar: that of modern Chinese history and closely related fields (e.g., literary and political studies of the country) as they have developed within the University of California system. I have had a long and varied relationship with that system, having received degrees from two of its campuses (Santa Cruz and Berkeley), taught at two others (a one-year visiting position at San Diego, now a permanent one at Irvine), and given public talks or participated in outreach events at three more (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Davis).

There are many distinctive things about the study of China, a country whose importance to America and indeed the world has never seemed greater, as evidenced most recently by President Obama's statement earlier this week, at the start of a series of high-level bilateral talks, that the "relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." There are also distinctive things about the University of California, such as its size and prominence—as well as about the budget crisis currently affecting it, which is unusually severe and has gotten a good deal of news-media attention. And yet, a close look at the current strength but also vulnerability of modern Chinese studies at the university offers a cautionary tale with relevance for many other areas of study and many other institutions.

Two things have often been overlooked in coverage of the California crisis. One is how scholarship in fields like history and political science—for which Nobel Prizes aren't given and big grants generally aren't received—has contributed to the system's reputation and overall excellence. Another is how the University of California works as a system, not just a cluster of separate campuses. A quick look at the area I know best, modern Chinese studies, illustrates those two often-ignored parts of the story. Here are some basic facts worth pondering:

* When officials at the World Bank wanted advice on China recently, one person they called was a colleague of mine at the University of California at Irvine, the economic historian Kenneth Pomeranz, inviting him to come brief them. But if budget cuts like those happening now had hit earlier, he might have been working somewhere else, since several colleges had tried to recruit him in the preceding decade.

* When the Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on Chinese human-rights issues in June, two people they brought to Washington were from the University of California: Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific Affairs at San Diego, and Perry Link, a specialist in East Asian studies at Riverside. Had the 2009 cuts come earlier, they would have been bringing Link from New Jersey, not California; one of the most talked-about developments in Chinese studies in recent years was Riverside hiring him away from Princeton University....


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