Sunday, December 6, 2009

Circling Vultures

If I lived in California, I'd be outta there in a New York heartbeat. The University of California system is in total free fall with massive salary cuts (about 8 percent on average), desert-dry research budgets, tuition hikes, larger classes, fewer graduate students and most of them with less-than-competitive stipends, and a housing market that is too expensive for most lowly paid profs, even after the crash. Given the disaster that is the California economy, what has been the best state university system in the United States will probably never recover.

That reality has a lot of department chairs and deans California dreamin.' It's just a matter of time before the East Coast vultures begin circling around the dying universities that Arnold and the state legislature are slowly starving. The Ivies will go after the big names and, no doubt, ambitious places like Vanderbilt, Emory, NYU, and Notre Dame will be right behind them.

Who will be the first UC profs poached away by their wealthier competitors?

Here is a selective, speculative list of a few who are at risk of being lifted up, up and away the very first moment the academic economy starts to recover.

BERKELEY, once one of the top three or four departments in the country, lost many of its great historians (especially Americanists) to retirement and it has never really recovered. Its Europeanists are now prime to be plucked from their East Bay perch.

Peter Sahlins. He's got thick ties to the East Coast and a high flying academic career that includes the perfect profile for a deanship. He'll be crossing some boundaries really soon.

Yuri Slezkine. Russian history fell just as fast as the USSR after 1991, but it's starting to come back. Slezkine is one of a handful of mid-career stars out there and he brings another big plus to the job market. His controversial breakout book, The Jewish Century, positions him for jobs in Jewish history, a promised land for talented historians because it's the only subfield that springs forth a new endowed chair every few years.

DAVIS has been an unlikely success story over the last decade. It has an unattractive, modern campus in an unfortunate location, dreary, suburban, and just far enough from the metropole to be truly provincial. But despite its disdvantages, it has nonetheless managed to recruit some genuinely talented faculty. Those talented Davis-ites are likely to be easy pickings when the time is right. Who's likely to go? I'd pick these:

Alan Taylor. After winning the Pulitzer Prize, many came a courtin'. But Taylor left them all disappointed. It takes real guts to rebuff Princeton, Penn, Columbia, and Harvard, among others. But it's just a matter of time before some desperate suitor comes along again, especially because many of the once-great departments in colonial history have slipped into mediocrity. Princeton? Columbia? Cornell? None of them will be hiring soon...but a year or two or three? And don't forget the large number of card-carrying AARP members holding prime positions in early American history. Retirement isn't that far in the future for Laurel Ulrich, Gordon Wood, Jon Butler, Michael Zuckerman, and Karen Kupperman.

Eric Rauchway. He's the single most productive member of the Davis history faculty and, other than Taylor, the most ambitious too. Twentieth-century U.S. history is not a job-rich subfield right now, but when the time comes, watch him become blessed among historians.

UCSD has long served as a farm team for richer and better universities. That trend is likely to continue now that the university is on a starvation diet.

David Gutierrez is one sure bet to be recruited away from sunny San Diego. He must regret turning down offers from Princeton and Michigan, given the tremors that have shaken his home university. He's charismatic and productive in a field whose future is as bright as the U.S.-Mexican border. My bet is that he'll be on the run from San Diego as soon as he can.

UCLA is still a great department, the best in the California system and still one of the strongest in the world. It also has one of the biggest history faculties in the country, with critical mass in many subfields. But will it be able to cling onto its greatness during the current crisis? Not if the state legislature continues to suck the life out of it. Still it will be hard to break up UCLA. Some of its biggest names like Lynn Hunt, Anthony Pagden, Teofilo Ruiz, David Sabean, and R. Bin Wong are unlikely to decamp, for there aren't many departments with comparable depth in their fields. But you never know.

For my money, the most likely to get headhunted are Sanjay Subrahmanyam, one of the real stars in Indian history, and David Myers, a mid-career hotshot in Jewish history.

I've only just begun. Irvine, Riverside, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara are all ripe for the picking. But more on them later.


  1. And that's just the state universities. USC already lost Philippa Levine to Texas.

  2. I think your post is an outrageous tissue of lies, and you should be ashamed of yourself: Davis is actually quite lovely, assuming you're not here in the summer.

  3. "I know — I'm just a son of a bitch." But I tell it like I see it.

  4. What a great list! These are some amazing people. But it's sad to see California going down the tubes.

  5. All of this assumes that you'd rather live in a dump like New Haven instead of a wonderful place like San Diego. I'm not sure you could pay me enough to make that move.

    And what if these people hate their families and want to live as far away from them as possible?

  6. Somebody who thinks New Haven is a dump obviously didn't get into Yale...

  7. In fact, I've never applied to Yale because New Haven is a dump.

  8. Anyone who wants to poach Subrahmanyam is welcome to him. Possibly a great scholar, but a crybaby as a colleague. And unfortunately not going anywhere until he can convince another institution to take on his lackluster wife as part of the deal.

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