Sitting Down With Parham
New University: In an October issue of the New University, you saw the budget with a “glass half full” mentality. Do you still feel that way?
Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham: I do feel that way. Part of my makeup and my character is to always try to look at any circumstance and situation as a half-full glass. The half-empty part of it is that the university is now having to deal with proposed budget cuts that are of an enormous magnitude. The $500 million proposed by the governor does not include things like unfunded mandates and other kinds of items that are on there that could bring that number even higher. But what is true is that once this crisis is over, the University of California remains the best public education in America. We have some of the finest talent in America, we have some of the strongest will in higher education and we have some of the brightest and most capable students. That all gives me optimism and I think that we will develop and demonstrate that we can develop a collective will to come together in light of the budget crisis to try to develop the best ideas and strategies to allow the university to sustain itself in a trajectory towards growth.
New U: In your time here, what things have you seen that have been constant, or are there any changes you have seen as far as intellectual or social climate goes?
P: One thing that has been constant for me has been excellence. One thing that has been constant is very capable leadership; we are led by some very capable people, both my colleagues and the administration but particularly by the chancellor. One thing that has been constant for me all these years has also been growth. There is a symbolism that is kind of analogous to the human potential. The human organism has three things in common with all life on the planet: we all have the capacity for growth, capacity for self-preservation and the capacity to reproduce their own kind. In that same context, I think UCI has always had the capacity to grow. If you look at some of the ways in which we have grown, not just in numbers or students but also in the graduate division and new programs, on the undergraduate division as well: nursing school, law school, innovations in engineering, etc., the growth is pretty phenomenal in addition to the numbers. It is also true that these are not the first budget crises we have seen. There has been a constant ebb and flow Ń looking back, we had a budget crisis in the early ’90s. We had a budget crisis in the mid-2000s. So one thing that has been constant has been the change in crisis, but we have always been able to engage in a level of self-preservation. We have been able to preserve the integrity of the university, we have been able to preserve our excellence. We have been able to preserve much of our human capital that contributes so much to the quality of the institution. We’ve been able to preserve our culture of the institution here – UC Irvine has a culture – and we’ve been able to preserve that. Lastly, we’ve been able to reproduce our own kind. The capacity to reproduce our own kind is remarkable, even in the midst of change, even in the midst of fee hikes. Our admissions data now suggests we have a record number of applications to the University of California system. These are the things that give me hope even in the face of strife.
New U: Some student groups have responded to fee hikes with protests and activism in different forms. What forms of student response are most constructive, in your opinion?
P: I should say that among my colleagues, nobody likes fee hikes. The UC took an internal look at its own administration to try and whittle it down to make it more efficient to save dollars. The entire staff Ń everybody from the janitors on up to the chancellors and all the rest in between Ń took pay cuts and furloughs. The furlough ranged everywhere from 4 percent for the people who are paid least to 10 percent for those paid the most. Impacted salaries affect families to feed and mortgages to pay, we know this and it renders it the last thing you want to do Ń I mean, nobody likes it but it is a necessary move in the climate. The state has basically no funding, so students need to know that it is never a first option. Having said that, protest, fighting the police Ń I mean, I remember students clashing with some of the university police – you have to realize that the same person you are clashing with just took a salary reduction to keep your fees from going up even more. Advocacy is important, but advocacy mixed with civility is essential. I think the social advocacy – that contact with the government and legislation and other folks and sharing their story about the importance of higher education – advocacy and letters, etc. that really talk to legislatures about why the University of California is important to fund. I think advocacy, writing, phone calls to legislators that really talk about the necessity to preserve the master plan is key. People who grew up in this state would be guaranteed admission to the finest public university in the world if they did their part of having good grades and test scores. Now what we have to do is try to keep it affordable. Unfortunately, that affordability plan has been eroding away over time. The state has given the university less resources to be able to manage what was a long-term agreement to provide affordable education. This is really something people have to wrestle with about whether or not they want to continue to fund it. So before people come to protest, it is important that they understand we hear their voices. The Regents of the University of California raise fees as a last resort to try to preserve the quality and protect the intellectual integrity of the institution. But they still don’t do that without considering other cost-cutting measures and other ways to create efficiency. We still share the pain of other folks.