Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why the 'Federal University at Berkeley' is a bad idea


UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s remarks last month on the transformation of Berkeley from a “state-supported” university to a “state-located” one went under-reported despite their huge significance, not only for Berkeley, but for the remainder of California’s public education system, as well as for debates about the virtues of public institutions.  The remarks reflected the shift in the balance of funding at Berkeley, which has seen federal money, student fees and philanthropy grow in importance even as California has increasingly turned its back on the nation’s premiere public university system.  This shift, Birgeneau suggested will necessitate a re-evaluation “of what our role is both in the state and nationally”.

I think that the shift to the Federal University at Berkeley is something which would appeal to some of the campus’ defenders, who would see it as a surer way of preserving Berkeley’s public character, given the Obama administration’s support for science and education, and the unwillingness of California’s public to deliver the coherent message to an embattled legislature which would allow representatives to fund the university properly.

But I think, tempting a vision though it might be, that it is a bad idea.  I want to say up-front that this is not a knee-jerk reaction on my part to anything that comes out of the campus administration’s mouth, though I will confess to being no fan of Chancellor Birgeneau.  His handling of police violence and protest at Berkeley has been nauseating, but I think that he, unlike Mark Yudof, Richard Blum and others, is genuinely committed to preserving something of Berkeley’s character.  I don’t think that he is a competent administrator, assuming that part of an administrator’s task is to lobby forcefully and successfully on behalf of his or her institution.  And I think (though this might seem a strange accusation to make) that Birgeneau is too loyal to Berkeley, in the sense that he sees it as a singular institution, disconnected from the University of California. 

So my views on Birgeneau aside, I have serious problems with the Federal University at Berkeley idea.  Firstly, its contribution to the debate about public institutions in California would be deleterious.  The transfer of responsibility to the federal government would be a victory of sorts for the likes of Jerry Brown, who is doing all that he can to transfer the state’s responsibilities to its citizens out of California’s hands, either to the local or federal level. 

The message to people would be, that when an institution is in trouble, it can be foisted off onto a different level of government and, when responsibility is granted to the federal government, the institution in question becomes increasingly removed from people’s lives, as does the question of funding, and the revenue raising that is required to sustain that funding.  I fear that a federal university would be further abstracted from the services it provides, and people would be even less inclined to favour funding it than they are in the case of a state university.

But there are lots of practical reasons to oppose such a shift.  Berkeley would lose its local character and mission for one thing.  Presumably Eligibility in the Local Context would be difficult to sustain at the federal level.  If Californians were competing with a nationwide pool, far fewer would attend Berkeley, and far fewer lower income students from our state and our communities would have access to a top-tier university.  Simply by expanding the population and geography from which students are drawn would undermine what Birgeneau himself identified as one of the key components of Berkeley’s public character: its commitment to admitting large numbers of low-income students and first-time college attendees. 

UC has many excellent programs that are aimed at getting information out to students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds at the local level.  I can personally attest to the importance and real value of such programs (UC Davis’ north state ETS, in my case).  Some of these programs are already federally funded, but their in-state efficacy would, again, be undermined if they were suddenly looking at an application pool from a swathe of 50 states rather than a small sector of California.

I am also amazed that Birgeneau would be willing to make Berkeley vulnerable to any dependence on federal funding.  I understand that the sciences in particular, and higher education more generally, is in a better place than it has been for years under the Obama administration, but that there has been such a markedly positive shift should remind us of something...  This hospitable federal climate was preceded by eight years of small-minded, anti-intellectual, anti-public, anti-science rhetoric and action. 

I shudder to think of the fate of a federally-funded university with Berkeley’s reputation for open-mindedness, commitment to the fostering of a critical public, and embrace of scientific advance should a Republican-controlled House of Representatives be complemented by a Republican-run Senate, and perhaps a Republican President.  What these downright malevolent and destructive people are doing to NPR, the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should give us a clue. 

But I can guarantee that the glee with which they are dismantling the institutions that protect the weak, keep corporate excess in check, and provide quality programming to the public is nothing compared to the fury that would characterise their assault on a university—a symbol of everything that the people who are waging class warfare on behalf of their corporate paymasters find detestable.  Nothing threatens the far Right and its attack on society so much as the constant production of a cohort of people trained to question everything they hear and see forensically, who have been trained in an institution that holds onto the value of collective moral action. 

And if the Federal University at Berkeley would gain a new set of enemies, it would lose some of its staunchest supporters.  The UC, CSU and CCC systems have the support that they do in California’s legislature because so many of those legislators, particularly those representing California’s traditional ethnic minorities, came up through the system.  They are proof-positive of the system’s ability to draw in non-traditional students.  But there is even more to it than that. 

Unlike the top private universities, who cream off the top minority students (often in larger percentages, but crucially, in smaller numbers than public universities), the public universities are not in the business of acculturating and co-opting their students into some dominant political-economic class.  The character, composition and politics of California’s public universities are shaped as much by their students as the other way around.  There are no grand traditions to draw upon, no appeal to a lineage of claims on national authority, in keeping with the aversion to memory and disdain for history that cultural commentators have identified as part of California’s heritage.

Another point stems, indirectly, from the contribution of California’s public higher education system to the creation of a generation of Mexican-American, African-American and Asian-American legislators.  I say indirectly because another of my concern is for the fate of the humanities.  The people who are singing the praises of the Obama administration are primarily located in the sciences.  Without a doubt, higher education in general is more in favour these days.  But as Obama’s school reforms demonstrate, there is a strong utilitarian bent to that favour, and even as things stand today on Berkeley’s campus, the sciences appear immune to the cuts that are sweeping the rest of the campus, at least from those of us located at geographical and hierarchical lower elevations.

This is a gap which would grow if we depended on federal funding.  Look to Britain, where Education Secretaries representing an ostensibly progressive-minded party dismissed humanities subjects as irrelevant, and consulted industry to get input on which degrees are the most valuable to sustaining corporate bottom-lines.  Or look to the federal departments funding research.  The most compelling dissertations in the world on liberal imperialism, the politics of wildlife, Scott’s Waverly, French cultural imperialism or the U.S. general strikes of the 1940s would never get federal funding from the departments of energy and defence, the mainstay of Berkeley’s labs.

And the fate of the ‘Studies’ departments would be even more certainly terminal.  Republicans, and some Democrats, love to poke fun at African American Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, as the preserve of left-wing post-modern crazies who are farther removed from the real world than men on Mars (odd coming from people for whom Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are apostles of reason, but never mind that...).  But theirs is a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the past, which ignores the real need that there was for such departments in days when migrant and minority communities were even more violently and forcefully discriminated against than they are today.

The generation of genuinely progressive legislators in California’s Assembly and State Senate are a testament in many respects to the empowering work of such departments, and though their narratives might occasionally verge on the insular and myopic today, there remains much work to be done when it comes to achieving racial, social and economic equality, and surely such departments have much to contribute.

Still another danger of the Federal University at Berkeley is that it would become ever-more a research institution.  Berkeley would not be a fraction of what it is today as a public institution without its undergraduate population.  And yet although Birgeneau can point to federal funds that put undergraduates in his lab, a university whose raison d’être increasingly became the production of useful knowledge would have less and less time for the education of some 20,000 undergraduate students, who are today central to Berkeley’s character and mission. 

There are those who complain (often having arrived from private universities) that undergraduates at Berkeley get a totally inadequate education because of the large class size, but I would strongly dissent.  I was no less captivated by amazing lectures my first year as an undergraduate at the University of California because the class included 450 students.  I have since sat in on lectures at Berkeley and find it as much the case.  Students have access to small courses in their later years, to seminar-style discussion sections painstakingly thought-out, often in collaboration between professors and graduate students, to the office hours held by frequently eager faculty (some of whom roam the corridors in search of nervous first and second year students to engage with), and to a range of student- and institution-led organisations, the breadth of which dwarfs anything on offer at smaller private universities.

The utilitarian beast into which a federal university would almost certainly morph—for it would be constantly forced to defend itself against a legislature far less progressive than California’s own—would have little time for Berkeley’s breadth requirements, for the humanities more broadly, and for the University of California’s historic commitment to the maintenance of a critical public.

The final argument regards Berkeley’s place in the context of California’s larger system of public higher education.  Berkeley is part of the University of California.  That should count for something.  If a principle behind this university system is a kind of communal (California) solidarity, jumping ship would be the wrong thing to do.  The rationale behind California’s three-tier higher education system is beautiful.

And here, perhaps, I should declare an interest.  I’ve been in California’s public education system for 20 years.  My entire undergraduate and graduate experience has been at the University of California.  I come, socioeconomically and ethnically, from a ‘non-traditional’ background.  I come from a part of the state that sends precious few of its high schoolers to higher education of any kind. 

Perhaps the nation’s greatest ever public effort, the waging of the Second World War, brought one set of grandparents to California.  They spent one winter in San Francisco and never looked East again.  Great-grandparents fled a revolution in Mexico and arrived in California early in the last century.  They found work with the railroad and security in private-sector unions, now long gone thanks to attacks from the political Right.  And when a young migrant from El Salvador married their daughter, they welcomed him into the Bay Area’s Mexican-American community and he too joined them in working with the railroad and serving his union.

Because of an historically contingent, chance set of happenings, this state has been my home, and the University of California, for the last seven years, my home away from home.  Every life chance anyone in my family has had has come from the social and political moral values that underpin institutions like Berkeley, as they once existed, and as they struggle to exist today.

So for me, keeping Berkeley public isn’t about some abstract ideological positioning.  Keeping it grounded in California isn’t a matter of perversity.  It’s not about some beef I have with Birgeneau and Yudof’s administrative style.  It’s personal. 

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