Student activists at the University of California have long been conflicted about who to address when protesting the dismantling of our state’s flagship institution. At Berkeley, where people began taking disinvestment by the state seriously during the summer of 2009, organisers were eager to target Berkeley’s Chancellor (Robert Birgeneau) and UC’s President (Mark Yudof). Most people who were following the emerging crisis—years in the making—agreed that administrators’ salaries were outrageous and their advocacy efforts half-hearted. But some of us were also arguing that even if we replaced the politically-appointed Regents, Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof and Robert “not non-violence” Birgeneau, public disinvestment would continue, because the people who control the purse strings are in Sacramento, not California Hall or UCOP offices in Oakland.
I remember turning up at one group’s meeting where people were eagerly discussing strikes and the merits of showering the Chancellor with underwear, blissfully oblivious to the fact that they would be carrying out these actions on a campus where the overwhelming majority of students had no idea that UC was in crisis, and amongst freshmen whose biggest fear was making it through Dwinelle Hall alive, and likely had no idea where UC’s funding was coming from. Nor did organisers consider that these kinds of decontextualised actions in the hands of a lazy media would play right into the ugly and misleading story that the Republican Party likes to tell about students (that we're all lazy, entitled, wealthy, disconnected and self-absorbed). Suggestions that we should look at Sacramento, or at least create some kind of context for students were pooh-poohed.
I don’t know to what extent this was the result of a pathological unwillingness to face the scope of the challenge as opposed to a deliberate strategy of relying on direct action by a few in the face of the ignorance of the many. But it was frustrating, as each fall, for three years, the same scene played out: protests and a temporary mobilisation of the campus, followed by a lapse in strategic thinking and 11 months of ensuing apathy on the part of most students and faculty. Campus activists were inflexible in their unwillingness to consider taking the fight to Sacramento, and no one at the state level made any serious effort to reach out to or mobilise students (perhaps we’re seen as an overly volatile and unreliable constituency—but surely part of the reason why students don’t vote in large numbers is that few politicians at the state level are talking about issues we think are important), with the result that no grand coalition for the defence of the Public emerged.
But something changed when, not for the first time UCPD attacked student demonstrators with stunning ferocity, and the Chancellor responded with one of his surreal e-mails praising the police and condemning students and faculty who were beaten (he later explained that he'd been travelling in Asia where, apparently, there is no such thing as e-mail or youtube...). And then UC Davis police brutally pepper-sprayed peaceful students who later, in a moving moment, delivered a powerful rebuke to their Chancellor. And then, of course, the UC Regents, made up of affluent businesspeople and technocrats who have shown an alarming eagerness to commodify the education that the University of California is charged with providing to the citizens of our state, cancelled their meeting to avoid meeting protesters face-to-face.
Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup with Joe Mathews (I know, some of you are sick of hearing me praise this book, but deal with it, or better still, read it), provides the best analysis I’ve seen of why they’re all right...that is, both those who condemn the detached administrative elite and those who argue for vigorously lobbying our legislators and working to change California’s system of governance. Paul describes how students at UC, as he puts it, “understand something important. The modern university does not stand apart. It reproduces the real world, in which the spoils flow almost entirely to the top 1%”.
He has a robust answer for those who say ‘the state has already disinvested, why not go the whole way?’ (“Those state dollars define the ‘public’ character of the university...” and provide some desperately-needed oversight, keeping the ills associated with privatisation temporarily in check). And his is the most searing (and spot-on) critique of administrators that I’ve seen from anyone: “the peripatetic class of college administrators, flitting about the country, without roots or allegiance to place, chasing the next mid-six-figure payday from the CEO-investor types who infest the governing boards of the nation’s colleges”.
There is nothing more frustrating than being away from Berkeley while all of this is playing out. But from the e-mail and facebook and twitter chatter that I’ve seen, people on campus are beginning to take a more serious look at UC in the context of California’s structural political problems. So it is doubly heartening to read a voice of reason like Paul, best-known for his calls for political reform, praise the campus’ advocates. Maybe the two groups—state-wide reformers and campus critics—are finally realising that theirs is a shared goal: to rescue the idea of the public good in California, and that to do so we need to talk about reforming Prop 13, taking on minority rule and thinking about fair voting systems in addition to debating administrators' salaries, condemning police violence and demanding democracy on University of California campuses.
We are short on time, we need a strategy more sophisticated than Governor Brown’s ‘by the seat of his pants’, one-year-at-a-time ‘solutions’, and we need to continue the difficult task of trying to reach a wider public. But there are hopeful signs that Californians are beginning to ‘get it’. The more difficult task is to change poll numbers into democratic action, because given the restrictions Californians have placed on our legislators, action by concerned citizens and public institutions like UC is what it will take to save our state.