Thursday, June 9, 2011

Berkeley's leadership deficit

Winston Churchill, master of the merciless putdown, famously took aim at Labour Party Leader and Prime Minister Clement Attlee: “An empty taxi drew up outside 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it”.  While a bit unfair to the man who oversaw the construction of Britain’s welfare state, this sums up the feeling I get every time I see UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau wandering around campus.

I have to admit to being a little bit surprised by the recent Daily Cal profile of Birgeneau (“Activist past gives campus chancellor unique worldview”).  Vice-Chancellor Claire Holmes was quoted as saying, with reference to Berkeley’s “legacy of activism, that “we are fortunate to have a Chancellor who brings personal experience and passion about important world issues”.

Birgeneau and the many others of his generation who participated in the Southern Teaching Program, protests (whether on college campuses or on the Moscow subway line) and other forms of civic activism deserve nothing but praise.

But in Birgeneau’s case, an activist past seems to have given way to an apathetic present.  From the standpoint of a student scrambling for funding, of a UC alum who is watching the erosion of UC’s public character, and a GSI who sees Berkeley undergrads struggling to make ends meet, Birgeneau (and UC leadership more broadly) seems almost uniquely unsuited to advocate for Berkeley at a time when the university is threatened by a radical state Republican Party and business-minded Regents and administrators.

Like UC President Mark “being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof, Birgeneau exhibits a total lack of understanding about how state politics works, what UC’s place within those politics is, and how little good lobbying a legislature over which an extremist Republican Party maintains a veto will do.  UC’s advocacy efforts look hopelessly amateurish, its efforts to marshal students deliberately absent, and its commitment to maintaining the public character of UC system-wide virtually non-existent. 

Birgeneau’s timid advocacy on behalf of Berkeley has actually had the effect of undermining the University of a California as a whole, given his openness about the possibility of dismantling a unified public university system so that Berkeley can go its own way.

The leadership we’ve seen from Birgeneau, such as it has been, is a model of how to lead from behind with your eyes wide shut.  He has become, for faculty and students, an almost clownish figure, showing up at events to give justifiably self-deprecatory jokey speeches. 

When students presume to step into the leadership void Birgeneau’s outward indifference has created, they become a “health and safety issue”.  When UCPD officers whaled on peaceful protestors with truncheons, an incredulous campus community was assured that “the safety of our campus community” was the sole concern of those police.

In short, the Chancellor has become an absurd parody of every ineffectual, hand-wringing bureaucrat that populates our imaginations, a caricature which is so very far removed from the reality of the dedicated and conscientious public servants and state employees who populate our campus, the departments within our university system, and so many other institutions in our state. 

These people, paying the price for collective apathy, perform those jobs for which the thugs in the state Republican Party are so gleefully gunning, abetted by the soulless outlook of the UC Regents whose appointments are blatant acts of political cronyism, and whose values are as troublingly anti-communitarian as their imaginations are utterly limited.  Our campus and system-wide leadership consists of a group of empty suits, who are as incapable of advocating meaningfully for UC today as they were two summers ago when state politics burst onto our collective consciousness, threatening the character of the university system we call home.

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