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January 19, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

Cosmos -- not?
Star professor Stone Brusca won't dine with the administration

The Weekly Wrap

CONFUSION STILL: As everyone knows, the recent spate of storms has once again made travel out of the county a chancy affair -- particularly when the direction you wish to travel is south. The cliffs above the slip-slidy "Confusion Hill" section of Highway 101, just south of the Humboldt-Mendo border, have once again come tumbling down onto the roadway, sometimes closing off all traffic for hours or days, sometimes subjecting travelers to the now-infamous "one-way controlled traffic."

Now comes word that OWCT may be with us for months to come. On Tuesday, Caltrans spokesperson Ann Jones confirmed that the storms have done at least some damage to two retaining walls on the downslope of the hill, beneath the freeway, and that it will likely take the agency several months to repair them.

White said that Caltrans engineering crews were out looking at the walls now, and that the agency didn't have a final estimate on the damage they have suffered. "We don't know the extent at this point, and we don't know the dollar amount," she said. "That's still being assessed." But she did say that the walls had suffered similar damage during previous storms, and that Caltrans was able to fix them before the roadway slid into the river. She did expect that the agency would be working on them well into the spring, though, with bouts of OWCT throughout.


MYSTERY SUIT: Sacramento business consultant Kay Backer told the Humboldt Taxpayers' League last week that someone is getting ready to sue the county over its general plan, but she can't say who. Who could it be? In the past, Backer has represented the developers' group Humboldt Economic and Land Plan (HELP), which has charged that the county had not given an adequate accounting of land available for new residential development in the housing element of the general plan. Backer later said that the unnamed individual filing the suit shares HELP's concerns, but is not HELP itself. And she said that attorney Bob Best -- a high-powered Sacramento lawyer also previously associated with HELP -- is also representing this unnamed individual.

So it's not HELP, but it's HELP-ish. Best sent a letter to the Times-Standard (which Backer forwarded to the Journal) laying out the mystery individual's beef with the county's future planning. "The housing element for Humboldt County is close to useless to determine whether and how the county will meet its obligations to provide for the development of adequate housing for all income levels," Best wrote.

Humboldt County Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard said Friday that given the apparently serious threat of litigation, he could not comment on the case. But Mark Lovelace of the Healthy Humboldt Coalition, a smart-growth, anti-sprawl group philosophically opposed to HELP, said in a press release that that group is out of touch with the work that the county has been doing on the housing element. "The County has consistently worked to update and improve its data, and to learn from its mistakes," Lovelace wrote. "HELP should do the same."


AIR HEARINGS: This Friday, Jan. 20, beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the Eureka City Council Chambers, 531 K Street, the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District's hearing board will hold public hearings on a passel of variance requests and petitions, in this order: D.G. Fairhaven, on a regular variance; Evergreen Pulp, Inc., on a petition for order of abatement for monitoring; Evergreen, again, on a petition for appeal of authority to construct permit conditions; and Evergreen yet again on a regular variance for the lime kiln. The hearings may flow into Saturday, Jan. 21. You like to breathe? Be there.


TRANSPORT YOURSELF: In yet another round of civic involvement, wherein you make your world a better place, you may want to attend some Regional Transportation Plan workshops put on by the Humboldt County Association of Governments. The plan's being updated, and three workshops are being held to allow you to get in your two cents about bicycling, foot-travel, roads, public transit and other such mobility issues. The first one was on Wednesday. The remaining two are Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Eureka City Hall Council Chambers from 6:30-8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Willow Creek Community Services District Meeting Room, 135 Willow Road in Willow Creek, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Info: 825-8260.


FOXY LADY: On Friday a tipster called the Journal about a film crew, not from these parts, up to something at the Arcata Plaza. So we moseyed over to the town square and found the non-local news crew in question: the strapping videographer, the clipboard-wielding production assistant and the pretty blonde reporter lady. We could hear her saying something about Arcata Mayor Michael Machi and the Green party town.

Once they wrapped, the Journal's equally attractive, though not blonde, reporter made her way over to the crew, who seemed mildly annoyed when she asked where they were from. "San Francisco," they said. Well, I'll be! What station? the bumpkin wanted to know. The hard-boiled camera guy snarled, "We're here as journalists, not to be the subject of journalism." Ooh, that smarts. A few moments of awkward silence later the pretty one, compelled perhaps by pity for the dejected newspaper girl, said they were with Fox News. They were here to do a piece on Arcata and the rascally City Council passing a resolution [3-2] to boot President Bush from office for even more offenses than were listed in the last resolution, including failure to respond adequately to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, secret surveillance of American citizens and torturing people in violation of the Geneva Convention. There's a slight chance that the resolution won't result in Bush's impeachment, but at least Arcata appears to have gotten on T.V. again.


BIG BOXES: Fortuna Mayor Odell Shelton gave the Journal a call after reading last week's interview with Cherie Arkley, the Eureka businesswoman proposing to build a large development that would include a Home Depot megastore on Eureka's Balloon Track. At one point in the interview, Arkley said that such stores were already on the way to Humboldt County: "Lowe's [a competing chain] has already been approved in Fortuna," she said.

Which was news to Shelton. He phoned in to remind us that the potential building site that Arkley was referring to -- the old Pacific Lumber mill, which closed last year -- is the subject of much debate down in F-Town. The city is currently in the process of revising its general plan, and that any potential rezoning of the old Palco mill site will be a big part of that plan. Shelton said that it's rumored that Sacramento developer Fred Katz, who proposes to develop the site with a big box project, has been in talks with Lowe's, but that the city is still very far from giving its blessing to the deal.

"I think that what I heard is that Lowe's has possibly signed a letter of intent with Fred Katz," Shelton said. "But nothing's been OK'd on that yet. That land is still zoned industrial, and they're still a long ways from anything getting approved for commercial development."


CORRECTION: Last week's arts column gave the wrong address for artist Jennifer Kincaid's gallery. While Kincaid does receive mail at the address given in the column, her gallery is located at 905 Third Street in Old Town. The Journal regrets the error.


Cosmos -- not?

Star professor Stone Brusca won't dine with the administration

story & photos by HEIDI WALTERS

There's a little demonstration Humboldt State University Physics Professor Stone Brusca [above] likes to perform each semester in his upper-level Cosmos class. It's called the "Bed of Nails."

"I lie on a bed of nails, a student puts another bed of nails on top of me (all nails sticking into me), and then a cinder block on top of that," Brusca explains in an e-mail. "I've got the sound equipment playing Wagner's `Ride of the Valkyries' in the background as the physics technician comes in with a sledgehammer and a medieval executioner suit. He then smashes the cinder block. The students are generally screaming at the top of their lungs as this all goes on -- they all think I am going to die. Once I survive this ordeal, I explain to the class how my survival demonstrates key ideas about Force and Pressure."

Brusca's popularity and success at grabbing students' attention -- his Cosmos class is famous for years-long waiting lists and every-seat-filled classrooms and extra sessions -- culminated this past December with his being named HSU's Outstanding Professor of the Year. The pile of student letters, alone, in support of his nomination was close to an inch thick, with many declarations of "his class changed my life."

So, now everyone goes to the celebratory dinner/reception and raises a toast to Brusca, no?

No. Reacting less than sanguinely to a different set of forces and pressures, Brusca has written an angry letter to the HSU administration saying that, while he treasures the award, he'll have nothing to do with a dinner. "... I don't eat rubber chicken, I don't own a suit nor tie -- nor will I buy them, I drink water not wine, and I think it's beyond weird to expect students to pay $20 to honor their teacher receiving an award," he wrote.

Brusca proposed that, instead, he give a free, hour-and-a-half lecture titled "How Big is the Universe -- A Primer," followed by "a 2 minute ordeal" in which the person who nominated him for the award, Theater, Film and Dance Department Lecturer Jandy Bergmann, presents it to him. Otherwise, he told the administration, the award could just be delivered to his office without fanfare -- and that is the option the administration has chosen, HSU President Rollin Richmond said Tuesday morning.

Why the negative reaction to what should be a positive event? In his letter, Brusca wrote: "For 24 years I have worked fanatically hard for HSU." He said he works 70-hour weeks and has written two self-published textbooks tailored specifically to his class. However, he said, in his post-tenure review last spring with James Howard, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Sciences, he was "reprimanded" and his review period was shortened from five to two years because he had not met the dean's expectations for scholarly output.

In an interview last Friday, Brusca said he "was shocked" at his review last spring. "[Dean Howard] specifically mentioned that I should publish my books," he said. "But, see, my books are totally devoted to my class, and they wouldn't be useful to anyone else. I talk about banana slugs, I talk about the William McKinley statue ... I make Humboldt County jokes. And I've heard when you send a book out [for broader] publication, they completely sterilize the work. Why would I want that? How does that benefit the HSU student?" He said he'd played the publishing game before receiving tenure, then re-evaluated that approach and decided it added nothing to his teaching.

Brusca got so mad he quit his full professorship and joined the faculty early retirement program (FERP), which allows him to keep teaching his "beloved Cosmos courses for a few more years."

But Brusca says he's been "getting angrier and angrier" with the administration over the past couple of years. He accuses the administration, under President Richmond, of pursuing "a campaign to make [HSU] a research institution" at the expense of teaching.

"I come from the [University of California] system," Brusca said. "I was an undergraduate there, and I had the worst experience. All they cared about was research." Brusca said he specifically sought a position at HSU because it is a teaching institution. "That was my life hope," he said. "To do really good in the classroom." He said he also was drawn to the students he had heard went to HSU. "The location is just so fantastic, and I think it attracts a special kind of student. They're hooked on nature, they're asking the big questions -- [such as] `What is the meaning of my life?'"

HSU History Professor Simon Green, who has come to Brusca's defense, also worries about what he sees as the administration's attempt to put more emphasis on publishing. Green is vice chair of the faculty senate and chair of the faculty affairs committee -- and that committee has been hashing out what to do with the university's policy on promotions and tenure. "We've pretty much rejected the suggested change that would require publication before promotion," he said.

Richmond declined to discuss personnel issues -- such as Brusca's evaluation and resignation -- citing California State University system policy. But he disagreed with the notion that he's leading the university down the "publish or perish" path.

"That's a common refrain from faculty who don't come up to standards," Richmond said. "I've seen that at other universities where I've worked, and here."

Richmond said the university holds its professors to three responsibilities. "We expect excellent teaching, we expect them to be excellent scholars -- because you can't be a good teacher if you are not a good scholar -- and we expect excellent service to the community."

Well, but Brusca was just named Outstanding Professor, so wouldn't it follow that the administration thinks he's a good scholar?

"I don't think there's any question that the courses he teaches are well received by the students," Richmond said. But, he added, he might have thought twice about approving the selection of Brusca for the award had he been aware of his dean's evaluation. (Richmond allowed that while he did receive a copy of the angry letter Brusca sent to Howard back in May, he doesn't always "get around to reading every piece of paper" that comes his way.) HSU's vice president for academic affairs, Rick Vrem, said the committee that selects the Outstanding Professor "doesn't involve anyone who has read the entire file" that a faculty member submits for periodic evaluations.

Both Richmond and Vrem reiterated that some people's fears that HSU is changing course are groundless.

"Humboldt State University is not a research university, it's a comprehensive university where teaching is considered by almost everyone here as first among equals," Richmond said. "But you cannot be an excellent teacher without being engaged with the controversies in your field, without being actively engaged in the current direction of your field." Vrem added that the "publish or perish" approach "just isn't appropriate for Humboldt State University."

But it may be too late to convince Brusca. As in another of his physics demonstrations -- in which he attaches a fire extinguisher to a little red wagon and zooms around to demonstrate that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction -- he is threatening to rocket on out of HSU to some other institution within the next few years.

"This is the saddest thing that's happened in my life," Brusca said.



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