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Young Guns
Gene Hunter
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Spring 1999

Young Guns
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Picture yourself on a journey, lighting upon a rocky place at sunset with no recourse but to sleep, and nothing to rest your head on but stones. In a dream you behold a ladder set upon the earth, its top reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it! Above it stands the Lord, declaring that your seed shall broadly fertilize the earth, blessing mankind. Quaking, you realize that this place is holy, the very gate of heaven.

Have you lost your marbles? Perhaps, so far as most of the world is concerned. But not if you are Jacob at Beth-el in the Old Testament. Nor if you are at UCLA, where faculty marbles resemble Jacob's.

For our young faculty just starting to make their marks on the academic plain, Beth-el's rocky place is a pre-tenure step beyond graduate study, a step now haunted by an arid job market littered with stones to trip over. For all faculty, young and old, the holy place is a campus like UCLA, a place both of this world with its rocks of bureaucracy, schedules, committees, tests, and deadlines, and out of this world as it most highly prizes the life of the mind, culture, research, abstract thought, and the expanding of consciousness and spirit.

The deity of higher education lies in ideal goals that stimulate all of these prized pursuits, transcendent goals much like the Lord in Jacob's dream. And as faculty strive toward ideal goals, their goals bless the fruits that they, like Jacob, spread across the earth. Thus universities, like Beth-el, are a type of heaven's gate.

UC campuses are caught up in all of this, but especially distinguishing them is their version of Jacob's ladder. Both literally and figuratively UCLA has a "ladder" promotion system in which most professors are called "ladder faculty." Typically, faculty must trudge up more than a dozen "steps" (or rungs) through the assistant professorship, associate professorship, and full professorship to Paradise. Each step involves a review, and major inquisitions about scholarship, teaching, and university service occur before advancement to a new title.

As Jacob's ladder linked earth and heaven, this system links worldly realism and otherworldliness. Former Governor Jerry Brown once suggested that faculty did not need high salaries because their profession was monklike. Weirdly, it often seems so. In the 1950s, a department chair informed an assistant professor that his tan ill-suited a scholar. In the 1960s, a young scholar, naive to the ways of the real world, ruefully discovered he needed a down payment to buy a house. In the 1970s, when another admitted he earned $13,000, a businessman asked, "A month?"

For all its Byzantine complexity and stresses, the Jacob's ladder of academic advancement at UCLA protects such innocence and rewards research that distinguishes the individual and the campus.

Faculty may hear echoes of the old African-American spiritual again and again during their laborious ascent: "We are climbing Jacob's ladder . . . Ev'ry rung goes higher, higher . . . We are climbing higher, higher . . . " But at least they are going upward, often with a greater regularity than at most universities.

Though few angels traverse this ladder, fewer schools have fairer systems.

Charles Berst is an emeritus professor of English.

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