Calling All Bibliofolk: Resist the Transformers, Save UCI's Bookstore, and Take Back the University, Too.

Categories: OC Bookly
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This week, Mr. Bib happily shares a rant-analysis-thought piece by a fellow scholar-activist who takes on the dismal decision-making at our shared alma mater and place of employment. My biblio-pal Michelle Chihara is a PhD candidate, an MFA, a creative writer and sometime journalist, and knows how to write a righteous homily on a Sunday morning.  Yes, the UCI Bookstore is, as she describes it, the latest victim of the suits, privatizers, consultants, bottom-liners and the failure of imagination.  As our mutual friend, Jonathan Cohen, one-time staffer at the store and all-around smart dude observes, "Universities are becoming something else, something more naked--entities that survive for the sake of their own survival." Thankfully, some of us object!

Here, then, a slightly shortened version of Chihara's excellent, angry and thoughtful "The Real Price of Transforming the Bookstore."  For her citations and links. and the complete essay, go later this week to the nifty site Avidly.  Meanwhile...
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This week's guest blogger

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Under new management
At the University of Virginia a new and well-respected president was sacked by the board. It has become increasingly clear that the move to oust President Teresa Sullivan was prompted, in part, by her lack of love for "emerging technology." [Mr. Bib notes Sullivan's eventual reinstatement, yippie.] The board members plotting to fire her talked about inevitable "transformations." This is the same rhetoric currently being used to gut the humanities at the University of California and elsewhere: Economic challenges demand "transformation." Supposedly, board members and administrators understand that transformation better than academics. 

At UCI we have our own "transformation" underway. The administration is killing the bookstore. Long posters in the window store are festooned with images of what seem to be anteaters in Transformers costumes. A campus-wide email trumped a "Bookstore Transformation": "We are also developing a new brand to reflect these and other transformations occurring across the store!" (italics in original). The administration's proxy, who signed the email as "Stacey Murren, Interim Director," has prompted many of the long-term staff at the bookstore to "retire." This is the primary "transformation" thus far, along with a decrease in actual books for sale. The last few author readings were held in a humanities building, not in the store, in protest. A management theorist, it seems, Murren required that the staff take personality tests.
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New bookstore staff test
She asked that they consult their personality color analysis before interacting with other staff, to ease interaction amongst people of different personality colors. But it's the push away from a commitment to books that has pushed longtime books department manager and "Interim Co-Director" Matt Astrella and his peers out. At a recent reading, which packed over a hundred people into a room in HIB, faculty, staff and alumni gave standing ovations, gifts, and tearful speeches for the departing bookstore staff. The feeling in the air was clear: We were mourning a crucial part of UC Irvine's intellectual life.

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Famous writers dig bookstore readings
The University's own communications officer profiled Matt Astrella in 2009. She wrote that he helped the "UCI Bookstore become a center of campus literary life and home for new authors." The Zot Zine last month linked to a piece in The College Store citing Astrealla's Author Series as a primary example of how bookstores can sell more books and "boost sales while strenghtening ties between the campus and community."

But Astrella has been forced into retirement and the Author Series is no more. It's not clear what the new brand will be. Perhaps we will have a sexy Electronic Text Store or an Enhanced Sweatshirt Stand, or a hot Pretty Please Buy Here Instead of Amazon Spot. In any case, the new brand will no longer focus on those antiquated, nostalgic repositories of human memory and learning, those collections of mere words, those symbols of liberal arts and research and education: Books.

On the one hand, administrators like to tell Michelle Latiolais, the co-director of UCI's MFA in Creative Writing, that the storied writing program is a "jewel in the crown." But on the other hand, those same administrators continue to support decision like the one to kill the bookstore. Latiolais treasures the reading series as a beloved "victory lap" for authors like Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Alice Seybold and Izzy Prcic, who travel "home" to UC Irvine. Murren's first take on the series, according to Astrella and others at meetings, was that no one cared. Once it was made clear to her that plenty of people both attended and cared deeply, she suggested that the bookstore charge admission. This suggests that the person now running the bookstore rarely, if ever, attends author readings. More importantly, this suggests that administrators who don't value or respect books believe they are best suited to find new ways to monetize them.

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11 comments
Petra_the_Anteater
Petra_the_Anteater

Alright guys, lets face it. No one really wants to turn the bookstore over to Barnes and Nobles. But its been in the talks for over a year now - maybe more. Matt Astrella and his team are great, nice, hardworking people, but the bookstore was overbloated and highly bureaucratic. Did we really need a whole TEAM of full salary employees managing every aspect of the bookstore? As someone who worked there and saw everything from the inside out, MANY if not MOST of these jobs could have been replaced by students. And I'm not talking about the guy who does all the accounting or Matt or even marketing guru Steve - and certainly not all the wonderful guys working out in the dock. These are the people that ran the store - kept it was it was - and made it great. What none of you are here realizing is that many STUDENT bookstores are just that - run by STUDENTS. Just look at how UCLA's is run - it works great. The real fact of the matter is that no one wants to see the author series, mad film dash, or events like literary orange to dissapear. The bookstore was just simply not run efficiently. You want real success, comeup with a solid business plan, hire the right full time managerial staff ( keep it small ), and employ more students. Paying some future software engineer 10 bucks an hour sure beats a full fledged salary with health benefits and the whole nine yards. Sadly, however, the apathetic UC Irvine student population will likely forget this travesty just as soon as they visit one of the other mega corporate on-campus vendors.

Clairesummers288
Clairesummers288

Oh, I almost forgot... is Erin Lane going to write a comment to defend her boss again?  Or will Murren "force" (I mean convince) another one of her "syncophants"(I mean student center employees) to write it this time?

Jason Lee
Jason Lee

Murren was former director of Parking and Transportation Services as late as 2010, right?  Apparently her "significant other"  David Puig ("peoplesearch" Murren and Puig of Silverado) began his UCI employment as Transportation and Distributions Services Supervisor in 2011.  Nepotism?  Preferential hiring?  Or just a "coincidence"?  Undoubtedly, UCI Human Resources will have no problem detailing the circumstances of this "coincidence" and how Puig was the best candidate for this job,right?  Can you imagine if this "hiring" (what many would perceive as nepotism) occurred in the LA mayor's office or even in the Irvine mayor's office?  Or does UCI even care what even the public thinks?  Or maybe, Murren and UCI thinks no one will find out and put 2+2 together.  Here's an equation for UCI chancellor Charles Drake and his wife, UCI faculty and students: murren + UCI bookstore = loss of prestige, loss of revenue, loss of student jobs, loss of community goodwill, loss of experienced staff etc.  However, this same equation = ridicule, travel perks for Murren and staff (I wonder, do tenured professors or other department heads travel that much or am I unaware of Murren's status as a college educator or of what classes she teaches?) and negative publicity for her and UCI when the public becomes aware of what is occurring at UCI.  This is another reason why people should vote against Brown's tax iniative this fall.  You think it is going for education, but it is actually going for administrators like Murren to travel and guarantee that their relatives become a part of the UCI gravy train.

Clairesummers288
Clairesummers288

Someone just sent me this article.  Thank you Ms. Chirahara and Mr. Tonkovich for bringing to light exactly what is happening at the UCI bookstore.  I understand that 4 longtime employees with over 120 years of combined experience at the UCI bookstore "retired" at the end of June.  Of course, Murren the former director of UCI parking and Transportation Services (as recently as 2010) must have vast amounts of knowledge about ruining (I mean running) a bookstore. Apparently, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dan Dooros, in all his wisdom, appointed her as interim director of the bookstore last fall.  What's next?  Will Waste Services take over the Biology Department?  Or perhaps Police Services will take over the Computer Sciences Department?  That makes about as much sense as what Dooros did.  My friend also sent me an interesting article that you can reference at www.newuniversity.org2010/11news/center-of-their-discontent.  This gives the reader great insights in how Murren treats her slaves (I mean underlings).  BTW, her kool-aid drinker (I mean apologist) in the comments section Erin Lane made about $65,000 in UCI salary in 2011 (according to the sacbee state salary site).  The new university article mentions that Murren has made the student center more transparent.  Then, I am sure she will have no problem making transparent the monies/public funds spent on student center staff trips to Orlando, Minnesota, Boston and Salt Lake City within the past 16 months.  After all, airfare, food, hotel expenses  for all those UCI staffers (reportedly 9 people travelled to Salt Lake City) makes perfect sense when there are tuition increases at the university.  Really?

sam
sam

Someone should send a copy of this article to Drake and his wife. I bet he and most of the faculty has no idea what is going on at the bookstore. Has Astrella and the other "retirees" contacted an attorney? 

Mphillips
Mphillips

I recently attended an author reading organized by Mr. Astrella and hosted by the Mrs. Drake.  Does the chancellor's wife know that he was effectively forced into "retirement?"  Mr. Astrella  was courteous and professional as well as informative.  I will NEVER set foot in that bookstore again or attend another UCI author event as long as Murren is in charge of the place-formerly-known-as-the-bookstore. Besides, Murren might charge me and other patrons at the entrance.  Does she even know how to spell "clueless idiot?"

Jim M
Jim M

My apologies to Michelle Chihara. I will read more carefully in the future. 

Jbrown
Jbrown

Thanks, Andrew, for running this piece.  Matt has been terrific to writers (and myself, personally, also a good friend), and though I don't like to hear he's retiring, I wish him all the best.  Now he'll have plenty of free time to read all the books the UCI Bookstore is no longer likely to stock.  

Mr. Bib
Mr. Bib

 Thanks, Mr. Mamer.  Note that I am simply reproducing Michelle Chihara's essay.  She is smarter than me, and better looking, too!  But we both (!) appreciate the Amen. 

Jim Mamer
Jim Mamer

Thanks to Mr. Tonkovich for this important and depressing article. Old-fashioned as this might sound, Books, Bookstores, and the Liberal Arts are fundamental to real universities. Nevertheless ubiquitous, shortsighted commodification seems to be pushing the University of California toward an abyss that looks a lot like the “University” of Phoenix.    Among his many essential points this one stands out for the understated way it summarizes the situation: “The fact that no one in development at UCI is protesting the death of the bookstore means that we don't have a very good development department.” Amen to that. 

Lala
Lala

I think you make some valid points.  With the loss of Astrella and the others at the bookstore, I think the bookstore lost its heart and soul.  Now that the ones who actually cared about what happened to the bookstore's long-term future are gone, it will be easier for admin to sell to (what you correctly define as "the apathetic UC Irvine student population") the leasing out of the bookstore to Barnes and Noble etc.  Why should the students care what happens to it if the employees who did care were "retired."  In fact, I heard that Astrella's co-director is resigning in August.  Wow!  The admin's "proxy" really must have made it unbearable for those people because they reportedly left less than a year after she became interim director. However, I heard instead of hiring students at the bookstore and at the student center, that they are laying them off or cutting their hours due to "budget costs".  Not enough money to pay a $10 an hour student but allegedly 9 UCI student center/bookstore staffers go to Utah? Where is staff travel and expenses on Murren's transparency pie chart? I certainly didn't see it. As far as the rest of the campus, if it's good enough to outsource the bookstore, food services and part of the ombudsman department, then why can't UCI and the rest of the UC's outsource student center services, catering, parking services, police services.payroll services, benefits services, janitorial services?  Exactly, why are student fees and tuition helping to pay for someone's retirement and benefits when a private company who doesn't have to bother with any of these could do the job just as well? Getting rid of UC benefits etc. for anyone except for faculty and essential (and I mean essential, not a highly paid paper-pusher or numbers cruncher like most admin positions;e.g.vicehancellors, associate vice chancellors, supervisors,directors, deputy whatevers who would have you believe the campus would fall apart without them) would save on tuition costs.  Do students really want to pay for a chancellor's $100,000 retirement or even a presumably far-lower-on-the-ladder employee like Murren's retirement?  With high unemployment and out-of-work graduates, I am sure that thousands would love any job in the UC system even without all the travel perks, benefits, pensions etc. I repeat, students and California taxpayers would love to see lower public tuition costs even if it means outsourcing services that are not essential to UC intellectual growth and status.  Does a job like Murren's impact UCI's intellectual standing?  Absolutely not, yet students are forced to pay for her benefits, travel and pension just like they would for a published, tenured, world renowned professor.  This is ludicrous. Perhaps an external audit by the state auditor (?) might shed some light on where exactly student center fees are going. Or even a determined newspaper or reporter could find out the information as Channel 2's David Goldstein did when he covered a story on food costs at a local cal state campus a few months ago. I recall that in 2006, UCI and its medical center (?) was the subject of an ethics investigation regarding alleged nepotism. Perhaps, it is time for another ethics investigation into alleged nepotism at UCI. I heard that 4 (!)siblings are employed on the UCI campus.

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