Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Road to This North Coast Place

On Friday evening at Northtown Books, North Coast poet laureate Jerry Martien and virtuso bass player Shao Way Wu performed a few selections from their new CD, The Road to Heaven. Martien said that they'd been doing these performances--reading poems with string bass accompaniment-- for twenty years, and it seemed like a good and easy idea to record them. Shao Way quipped that this sounded more impressive than it was--in that time they'd only done six or eight gigs.

They performed about half the poems on the CD, including the poem that gave the CD its title, in which Martien wrote that if you're not on the road to Heaven, you're on the road to Hell. It's a road CD, since most of the poems involve travel by car.

I stood in the back awhile at Northtown and listened until my own back complained. Martien's poems are popular for good reason, Shao Way's playing is tasty. But this isn't a review. I'm writing about the event here mostly because it reminded me of just how this blog got started. It was originally going to be a book, mostly of interviews on the topic of how to be native to this North Coast place, a concept inspired by author Wes Jackson. I got a North Coast Cultural Trust grant to do it, but contrary to the figures still on its web page somewhere, I didn't get the full $5,000 grant, but half of that. So I really didn't have the funds sufficient to publish a book. I started this blog instead.

Since there was an earthquake at about that time, the interviews I used had to do mostly with that topic, and related geology and topography. And some history about the real Natives of this place. But the very first interview I attempted for this project was with Jerry Martien. I thought the poetry of place was a good place to start.

I interviewed him at his house, and we got on well--so well, it seemed, that we spent most of the time laughing. I don't think I learned much about poetry of place, and I didn't use the interview directly. But in the course of what turned out to be a rambling conversation, I did catch on to one important element of becoming native to this place, which emerged from his stories about coming here and settling in. Jerry arrived with the 60s wave of back to the land hippies and idealists, and it was a tumultous time. (The stories of shenangians at HSU in the late 60s and early 70s alone are enough to curl your hair.) But what got people involved in the community first and the most turned out to be schools, and the welfare of their children.

So that's what I learned: to become native to this place, it helps a lot to have children here, and raise them here.

Over the years I've learned that I'm never going to become native to this place, so even this blog is now a huge joke on me. I'm just not that interested in local politics, and since I don't fish or hunt or camp out or do anything outside except hike, and I don't garden, eat in restaurants, go out much more than the theatre I'm required to attend to write about it for my paltry few bucks, and I don't drive around much either (unlike Jerry M, who by the way doesn't even recognize me anymore, and has completely forgotten about our conversation.) And I don't have kids, here or anywhere. So I'm not much of a North Coast kind of person apparently. Maybe I'm not even much of an earthling.

I can't say the place has been all that welcoming anyway. Years ago, someone else who came the same year I did said, "so we're both newcomers. And we always will be." Except that she won't be, because she left. But for whatever reason, me and my work don't much interest people here, except as it can benefit them and their work. Maybe that's more of the time than the place, I don't know. But I've been anonymous here in ways I haven't been elsewhere.

So this blog has few entries, and probably shouldn't exist anymore except as an archive. But hey, it's free. I don't know if it's on the road to heaven. I doubt it. And even if it's on the road to hell, I'm trying to enjoy the journey as much as I can.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Biography of Sky

These are actually from a few months ago, but they tell a story of this past month, too--rain and clouds, sun and wind...a lot of wind, it seems. And all kinds of light, including a little moonlight. Seems chilly, but today a hummingbird returned.

The Shoe Drops at HSU, Sort Of

After wrenching and increasingly public debate over program elimination, the president of HSU announced the decisions, though they were hardly definitive.

The letter said that the decisions were exactly what Provost Bob Snyder recommended. Here they are verbatim:

• Suspend admissions to both Computer Science and Computer Information Systems until agreement can be reached on what, if any, computer programs to offer.
• Restructure the Nursing program, including reducing the number of students admitted to the program from 60 to 40. Require the program to develop a plan to address numerous organizational challenges.
• Suspend the MA in Theatre Arts with emphasis in Film Production, which currently has no students enrolled.
• Review the entire Theatre, Film and Dance department, with a specific focus on the undergraduate and graduate programs in theatre.

So in the end, the only program that was actually eliminated was, well, none. Except the MA in Film Production, which has no students, and therefore costs nothing. Savings were found in Nursing and elsewhere, but apparently outside funding as well as outside pressure saved the Nursing School. However the letter did note "numerous organizational challenges." Which is jargon for a program on life support that needs help but has no money or insurance.

The jargony bit about Computer Science seems to mitigate the general understanding that this program is gone, basically at the request of the program itself. But Theatre, Film & Dance is the only department that's now under "review." With this further note in the president's letter:

"The savings from these decisions, as well as the earlier decision to suspend the Industrial Technology program, amount to about $600,000 of the $1.3 million that had been sought through Program Elimination. Additional savings may be possible from the review of the Theatre, Film and Dance department."

The bloodletting has ended for awhile, partly because the school year is ending, but partly I suspect because the administration was surprised by the fallout from the process, and the harm the whole concept of "program elimination" was doing to its reputation, not to mention its ability to recruit students.

But it's not really over, and it looks like Theatre, Film & Dance is going to be a battleground. However, for a number of reasons, my ability to report on this also comes to end. As well as my inclination to do so.

But I will note this: the current production of the Redwood Curtain theatre in Eureka features six actors, four of them HSU graduates. Both directors--who are also the founders of the theatre--got HSU Theatre degrees. And the costume designer is a current HSU Theatre student.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Pain and Arrogance at HSU

I've now heard accounts from several people who observed the HSU Academic Senate session that voted on program elimination, and compared their descriptions with the Times-Standard story today. Since they describe specific statements the same way as the T-S does, I consider them credible, even given all the emotion involved.

The outcome of the meeting however seems fuzzier than the T-S described. There was a substantial vote in favor of eliminating the nursing program entirely. (18-7, according to the T-S.) But it was a different story on the vote on the second package (actually package #4), which eliminates the sceneography MFA and the graduate film program, both within Theatre, Film & Dance. The vote was 13-12 in favor, with "one absention." What the T-S didn't say was that the abstention was the chair of Theatre, Film & Dance, who recused herself. There obviously is no mystery on which way she would have voted, and so the motion was really tied. At least one senator recognized this, and wondered if the vote should be revisited after reconsideration, but the Senate adjourned before deciding on that.

So the Academic Senate "decided" to eliminate these programs in Package 4, even though it had no cost savings attached. They had already met their dollar target of what they had to eliminate with the nursing program. But they eliminated these anyway, with a net savings of we don't know, maybe nothing, maybe less than nothing.

So what does it all mean? Maybe not a lot, as my previous post more than hinted. Because this was all advisory--the decision will be made by Provost Bob Snyder and President Richmond. It seems that the point was that the Senate get blood on its hands, it didn't matter what they consented to kill. Even if the Senate hadn't quite settled on its findings, that doesn't matter: Snyder, according to the T-S, said their part is over--now it's his turn.

And in an exchange that I heard described by others, the Senate Chair Saeed Mortazavi told Snyder that even though the Administration didn't believe the Senate could do it, and even though the Senate did it all under protest, they did come to a conclusion--to eliminate the nursing school. He asked that the Administration follow this decision. But Snyder refused to make any such commitment. The T-S reported his words as: “If I agree with your rationale and your reasons, I will go along with that. If I don't agree with your rationale and your reasons, I won't go along. That's just the way I am.”

I heard his final statement described differently, but always with that last touch: "That's just the way I am."

I don't know Bob Snyder, so I don't know how to judge his tone from his words. But others who heard him over the course of these meetings were shocked by what seemed like arrogance, or inappropriate flippancy, or both. There are livelihoods, lifetime commitments and futures at stake.

As for the nursing program, what the T-S story hints at is the fairly well known and openly discussed view that the program has been dysfunctional for years, and is currently in such a state of crisis that it would take resources beyond what's available even in flush times to repair it. For one thing, several searches for a new director have failed. Nobody wants to come here and deal with the mess that is has become. That's no reflection on the sincerity of the nursing students, who demonstrated during the Senate meeting in support of the program.

Provost Snyder (according to the Lumberjack account) told the Senate that one problem with eliminating nursing was the $200,000 state grant to the program. It's not clear to me whether he said this before or after the vote. Which obviously makes a big difference.

There may be need for nurses' training on the North Coast, but the HSU nursing program may not be the best alternative. It is not strictly speaking necessary to the university as university. If HSU had a medical school, maybe. But it doesn't.

On the other hand, it's hard for me to conceive of a real university without a theatre arts program, and this Senate non-vote gives some ammunition to Snyder, who has said publicly that he'd enjoy eliminating the Theatre, Film & Dance department entirely. And he's not the only one in the HSU administration who wants to do that. The hiring freeze has already weakened the department in key areas, but it still functions, and provides a service to students, the community and the university.

Meanwhile, at CR...

As bad as things are at HSU, they may well be worse at College of the Redwoods. Last week there was the devastating story about its president Jeff Marsee in the North Coast Journal (so extreme I wondered at first if it wasn't a really bad April Fool's joke), which repeated charges such as "faculty leaders who say Marsee is a tyrant, paranoid staffers convinced that their phones are bugged and a pervasive climate of fear and festering animosity" and "Dr. Marsee has pretty much single-handedly created a work environment that is mean-spirited, corrosive, secretive and downright scary."

Then today the Times Standard covered a tumultous confrontation of "at least 150" faculty and students airing grievances to CR Trustees, who support Marsee. "The California State Employees Association delivered a vote of no confidence in President Jeff Marsee." There were quotes about “exhaustive evidence of mistreatment” on the part of a "toxic administration, and a "crisis in our employees' morale."

The story then finds Marsee who is currently on a Fullbright scholarship, in Russia. His defense includes that "Community and Junior Colleges removed CR from the accreditation warning status in January because the college had improved its communications and conflict resolution abilities."

You just can't make this stuff up.

As tragic as all this is for the CR community, it may have tragic consequences for HSU as well. For one thing, an obvious (if institutionally difficult) way to address each institution's financial problems is to see which programs are unnecessarily duplicated and which would benefit from some sort of merged program or at least close cooperation. Nursing, for example. But given the chaos at each institution, with two presidents having in common a no confidence votes from their faculty, it's pretty unlikely common sense will prevail.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Trauma at HSU

Decisions are being made this spring that may determine the future of HSU, and will ripple out into the North Coast community--though that community doesn't seem to be involved in the decisions. More in the post below.

Is HSU Cutting Its Future?

A satirist might look at what's currently going on at Humboldt State University and ask, is the university being murdered, or has it just been tricked into committing suicide?

The North Coast community as a whole seems unconcerned, and it is certainly uninvolved--even though anything serious that happens to HSU will have substantial and long-term effects on the economic and cultural life of the region.

Inside HSU the current round of "cost-cutting" is traumatic. The counselling center is doing big business, dealing not so much with the usual student or faculty problems, but with these traumas--the fired staff and senior staff leaving in droves, taking with them precious institutional memory; the students whose course choices are shrinking, the time necessary to fulfill degree requirements possibly getting longer and therefore more expensive, and/or facing the disappearance of their majors and the possible devaluing of their degree because of it, as well as the cutting of "electives" which often are the most valuable educational experiences of these student years; the prospects of faculty with roots in the community facing the possible choice of moving on or teaching something else, as well as the insecurity and the upsets associated with putting their names on the process of eliminating majors, programs and departments. And on and on.

The University has been bouncing this way and that for years, trying to respond to dictates of the CSU system (that could easily contradict each other from year to year) and the shrinking resources from the state. All the reasonable cuts have already been made, with the possible exception of higher level administrative posts and compensation. Now HSU careens into pretty fateful decisions, with implications for its identity (will it legitimately be able to continue calling itself a university?) and its viability in the academic marketplace--and therefore ultimately, its existence.

Today the Academic Senate deliberated the fates of programs named to be cut, through a murky process which purports to be objective, but which would be hard pressed to defend that claim. There's a certain futility in these painful deliberations, since the Senate makes no final decisions, and a certain cynicism in the administration giving the Senate this task. You want shared governance, faculty? Well, here it is. Either the Senate will start the bleeding, and the provost and president will complete it, thus leaving the co-opted faculty with blood on their hands, or the Senate will refuse, and the administration will sigh about the failure of shared governance, and use whatever hacksaw or scalpel they will.

Let's take the examples I know something about: all three of the graduate programs in the Theatre, Film & Dance department are on today's target list (and the department as a whole is on notice that it may be completely eliminated.) They are on the list because the committee that decided so says they aren't worth the approximately $160,000 they cost.

The problem is, the department can't figure out where that figure came from, and nobody will tell them. Their figures show no such savings. The savings of cutting the classes etc. involved in the program are more than offset by the loss of graduate students who do work necessary for productions--not only the department's, but anybody who uses the Van Duzer or Gist Theatre. Higher paid staff will have to be hired to do it--especially in view of state safety laws--and so eliminating these programs will cost more money than it saves--which doesn't even deal with the value of the programs to the department, the university and the community. There's hardly a theatre in the county that doesn't have an M.A. or MFA from HSU in its organization (usually at the top), or doesn't use HSU graduate students in its productions.

And then there's the Film program targeted for elimination--which will save exactly zero dollars, because there's nobody in the program now. However, there is a new graduate program being developed that has already raised foundation money and it happens to be the kind of program that is a natural for HSU to seize upon gratefully because it so clearly is a key to its future: it is program centered around science documentary filmmaking.

In that is the not very hidden lesson and ultimate danger: in slicing away at itself, HSU is killing its future. Some of what HSU has been doing the last few years makes sense in terms of its future: for instance, it is strengthening ties with alums and starting to realize that it can't count on state funding anymore for total financial support. It's going to have to act more like a private university, or the public-private hybrids like the University of Pittsburgh.

But most of all, it needs an identity, a vision of itself that serves as a guide for reorganizing its academic structure and offerings. Not a brand--that's just PR, that's easy, I could invent an attractive brand for HSU in my sleep--but a brand is unsustainable unless it matches a reality, even a reality-in-the-making, a real vision. Not another all inclusive and otherwise wobbly vision statement. A fully articulated and worked out vision. And the leadership to develop that vision and make it real.

Without that, it's stuck with this mess. The metaphors are multiple: slow-motion bloodbath of targets of opportunity, political assassinations, seeming surgical strikes that go wrong, with unintended consequences and collateral damage played out over years. I don't think anyone on the HSU campus would dispute that the university has already been wounded, and is in the process of inflicting more wounds on itself. The question is whether they are wounds that will heal, or is this the death of a thousand cuts?

And what kind of university will be left? Will it be able to even legitimately call itself a university? For one thing, I always though that if you don't offer graduate programs, you're a college, not a university.

Anyway, that's how it seems to me--though I am not a properly anointed expert. I hope some folks who are more directly involved are asking long-term questions, and that leaders of the local community inform themselves, and insist on being heard. Maybe all this is happening and I just haven't heard about it?

Update 4/4: First reports on what transpired at the Academic Senate meeting Saturday suggest that the process is indeed as self-destructive and unfair as the direst implications of this post suggest it might be. At this point I don't believe that anyone--in the administration or on the Senate--is operating either reasonably or in good faith. The game is rigged.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Happy Spring!

Suddenly a week of sunny days and warmer temps. The rains now nighttime showers. Things grow here all year, but blooms like this in our front yard say that spring is here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wiyot Vigil

In honor of those who died at the 1860 Indian Island massacre, and in celebration of the ongoing Wiyot cultural regeneration, the annual Vigil is just concluding in Eureka. I couldn't make it this year but I've lit a candle here, and I'm with them in spirit. Jerry Rohde has a new piece on the 1860 events in this week's Journal, and here's a link to some of my past writing on those events (published in the San Francisco Chronicle) and subsequent ones.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Climate Change Comes to the North Coast

In some ways, the North Coast is well positioned to survive the Climate Crisis. We may eventually have problems with sea level rises, and we'll probably get hit with harder and more frequent storms coming off the ocean. But we've got the makings of fairly self-reliant and maybe even self-sufficient communities, and there's a lot of interest in locally based alternative energy. But now there's pretty sobering news: you've probably noticed it if you live here, and now it's been quantified: there's less fog. And because the redwoods depend on moisture, especially from the fog, it's bad news for them. And of course, for us. It's likely because of climate change, which means that it's likely to get worse. We may be turning into wine country up here, but losing our redwood forests seems a pretty steep cost.