Friday, January 30, 2009


What a weird winter in California. Yes, I’m used to some warm snaps and sun soaked Rose Bowl parades, but this January when great swaths of the nation lie under bone chilling blankets, we in sunny Pasadena seem to be experiencing four seasons simultaneously.
My white blossoming Crape Myrtle stripped naked, sculptural and touchable, woody bare hydrangea stalks, roses cut down to the stump, and even the cartoon colored citrus, kumquats and Meyer lemons, Valencias and Tangelos, shout winter in SoCal. The windswept valley air leaves startling mountain views recalling my last year’s haiku in celebration of the view from Cal State LA:

San Gabriel snows
framed by tanning palms—
Hooray state emissions laws!

Oddly, though, fall just won’t go. A massive maple a few streets down is still turning deep red into purple brown. New to me, this past November azaleas and camellias enjoyed a second bloom, and since they’re now out in full color I wonder if we had a false spring last fall that lingers still.

But spring also has arrived, my New Guinea impatiens eager hot pink, the lawn new green, tiny yellow daisies bursting into flower even before the poppies have started. And summer wouldn’t dare to miss this rare meeting of seasons, bringing 90 plus temperatures, Santa Ana winds, and threats of wildfire.

This hibernal cornucopia seems so at odds with the national talk of grim times and rusty snow belts and at odds with California’s descent into murky chaos, stagnant rhetoric, and just plain incompetence. But it’s hard to feel gloomy this brilliant January (a cream-tipped black butterfly just flew past my window) when things are looking up, up, up in Cal State LA’s College of Arts and Letters, where I am Dean.

Our recently launched MFA in Television, Film, and Theatre has brought two dozen new energy sources to the College. The students seem to be at every performance I attend (scouting for talent they can direct?) and are splashing out everywhere this week. A handful of MFA students worked the Palm Springs International Film Festival and, according to Professor Meredith Greenburg, who manages festival events, were able to wangle Leonardo di Caprio into taking his own picture, arm extended, surrounded by them. (Send me that photo so I can post!)

A larger subset are heading off to Sundance this week, joining other undergraduates and MA students in Communication Studies and Theatre Arts and Dance—35 students in all—thanks to the efforts of Dr. Kristiina Hackel who wrote a proposal to the Sundance Institute. Some of our students have never left SoCal and needed some tips from Ms. Hackel such as “Don’t worry about looking cute…wear a warm coat that covers your butt!” I’ll be donning a winter coat and wearing a cute Finnish knit tassled cap (if I can find it), joining the students and hoping to network a bit with “the industry” while enjoying more films in five days than I’ve managed to see in the past year.

Professor Hackel is developing a wonderful niche for Cal State LA’s media program, teaching courses on film festivals, pitching, and marketing on site at Cannes and Sundance. I’m not certain I’ll make it to Cannes this year—geez, for the third year in a row I didn’t make it to Palm Springs during the film festival—but I’ll still wish our students luck in the 24 hour film contest. Last year, they won the Audience Award!

In addition to the boost of the new MFA students in Television, Film, and Theatre, enrollment, a perennial concern, is doing great in the College of Arts and Letters. We have a large freshman class, a healthy dose of winter transfer students and a spike in spring quarter applicants. The bright yellow metal umbrellas of the redecorated Music Courtyard have us all singing “It’s a Small World,” and our dedicated custodial and garden staff have our home turf looking spiffy (except for the dead palm that really has to go). The University Student Union had a heel clicking kick-off on January 9th and yours truly was once again caught dancing, this time to the Mariachi Divas. (For past dance sightings, you’ll have to check with TAD faculty and students who have nicknamed me “the Dancing Dean.”)

And speaking of mariachi, a few of the divas including founder Cindy Shea are connected to Cal State LA’s revived Mariachi Ensemble. Our own Golden Eagle Mariachis round out our other Latin Music offerings, including the Afro Latin Ensemble (which recently played with Salsa legend Larry Harlow under the direction of Professor Paul De Castro and vocal instructor Iris Sandra Cepeda) as well as our Latin Jazz Ensemble directed by instructor Bob Fernandez.

Despite the recent highlights, that taste of optimism, so sweet in the air this January, can turn bitter the moment our thoughts turn to the next budget season. Just when it appeared that K-12 in California finally had some arts funding and could hire some dance, art, drama, and music teachers, just when we’re making some headway with foundations, just when the demographic flood of 18 year olds surged onto campus, California’s financial house of cards has come crashing down. Sunny January optimism gives way to wintry discontent and this strange admixture of seasons begins to smell of doom.

Cost cutting is the sad duty of most deans in this new year of decline but our College is actually doing fairly well at belt tightening, moving forward with all our tenure-track searches and expanding a few of our instructional labs. At the same time, we have to cancel too many small classes, frustrating students, faculty, and parents who all want to give students the courses that they want.

But hark! Amid the sudden sad talk, outside I hear Pasadena’s infamous escaped flock of green parrots. Maenad-like they thrash and tear at my neighbor’s camphor tree, berry intoxicated, squawking with awful delight. If this is the song of doom then let’s dance to it! At least until next week…when I’ll blog you again and perhaps change my tune…I’m your Dancing Dean, Terry L. Allison, of Cal State LA’s College of Arts and Letters.

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