Tuesday, November 29, 2011

UC Regents and Administrators are Dead-Weight on Higher Education

I’m starting to run out of words that aren’t four letters long to describe the systematic betrayal of the values and public character of the University of California by its administrative leadership.  I include in this group the likes of UC President Mark Yudof—who will make his greatest contribution to our community the day he packs his bags and leaves, taking with him his appalling attitude and spectacular ineptitude.  I include campus administrators like Berkeley and Davis Chancellors Robert Birgeneau (whose reputation as a cheerful idiot was diminished by his defence of UCPD’s baton charges) and Linda Katehi (who appears to have been about as on top of things at the University of Illinois during the Clout Scandal as Ronald Reagan was during the Contra debacle). 

And I include the Regents, who are political-appointees, part of the Governor’s patronage system, and who are not required be committed to UC’s values...these are men and women who have swum all the days of their lives in the “usual channels”, which Tony Benn once called “the most polluted waterways in the world”. 

Days after Berkeley students and faculty were violently attacked by police, the Regents cancelled their meeting, citing safety concerns.  Their action demonstrated a fear and or mistrust of the students who are supposed to be in their charge, and who ought to be their central constituency.  It showed a disturbing willingness to distance themselves from the realities on campus.  And it showed the disdain for public scrutiny that you would expect from a governing board that is essentially run like a country club.  I could promise the spineless wonders on the Board that the risk to their safety would be far, far less than that to any UC student turning up at a campus demonstration. 

But they reconvened on the 28th of this month, fled in the face of a handful of demonstrators (so much for engagement or accountability), and then voted to raise ten administrative salaries at a time when students are paying twice what they were when I arrived at UC as a freshman in the Fall of 2004.  According to The Bay Citizen, these included “a 9.9 percent increase for Meredith Michaels, vice chancellor of planning and budget at UC Irvine, whose annual salary will increase to $247,275 from $225,000.  Six campus attorneys also received salary increases.  The largest increase, 21.9 percent, went to Steven A Drown, chief campus counsel and associate general counsel at UC Davis.  His yearly salary will rise to $250,000 from $205,045”.

The Bay Citizen went on to report that Yudof defended these raises as necessary “to attract and retain talented employees”.  Yudof and his ilk are a good example of what we get when we bend over backwards to hire “top” people: a bunch of pathetic corporate pinheads who couldn’t care less whether UC retains its commitments to ameliorating inequality of fostering social justice, who haven’t done a single useful thing to oppose the state’s disinvestment or to engage with the public that benefits so much from our university system.  In 2009, Yudof famously praised Linda “pepper spray” Katehi as an example of the administrative elite he called the “Tom Cruises of the academic world”, and every action since has suggested that it is more important to UCOP to build up a cadre of high-earning administrators than to look after the character of the University as it impacts students. 

But Yudof and the campus administrators aren’t alone in promoting this caste of bureaucrats who we pay incredible sums of money to work out the surest and speediest way to dismantle UC as a public institution.  The Regents are equally complicit, and their provenance and behaviour on the Board illustrate the extent to which the rot that people have identified in the corporate world has crept not only into government, but into educational institutions. 

These are people who are in the business of making money.  Not, in most cases, through doing anything particularly worthy or useful, but by moving money around, making it appear and disappear.  They are the high priests of the Market with a capital-M, the biggest faith-based initiative history has ever seen.  They are some of the clowns who the Antipodean savant, Fred Dagg accused of corrupting his beloved New Zealand by “importing Market Economics, the belief that a beautiful day has no value if they can’t sell it”. 

A sketch of the backgrounds of some of these people is illuminating.  One of them comes from Main Street Advisors, a company which “strives to achieve profitable growth through expanded product development, targeted sales and marketing efforts, and a continued commitment to meet clients’ needs”.  Another comes from Varner Brandt, which specialises in “business finance, mergers and acquisitions, business transactions and strategy, real estate development, labor or litigation”.  Still another comes to UC from Pegasus Capital Advisors, a “private equity fund manager that provides creative capital and strategic solutions to middle-market companies across a variety of industries”.  The current Chairwoman was Paramount’s CEO.  Another spent his days at McDonnell Douglas, the now-defunct weapons company.  Then there is the one from the Union Square Investment Company, a group of “financial planning consultants”.  One is from Marcus & Millchap, which boasts of being “the nation’s largest commercial real estate investment service fund”.  Of course there is the chairman of the board of Makar Properties, which deals in “land entitlement, residential development, commercial real estate, hospitality and real estate investment management”.  And someone from California Strategies, LLC, a lobby group.  And the list wouldn’t be complete without the man who founded Blum Capital Partners.  The only details its website offers to those who aren’t “limited partners” (you guessed it, I’m not) is the fact that it is “an investment firm making strategic block, minority and control investments in public and private companies”.  I have not the slightest idea what that means, but intuition tells me it doesn’t have anything to do with higher education. 

They know how to run things all right...they’re exactly the kind of people who ran our country into the ground in 2008, and who have been handsomely rewarded for their services ever since by our blinkered President and the openly corrupt Republican Party, which in the absence of anything that passes for a moral framework, feeds gluttonously on corporate wealth.  They are utterly unrepresentative of California, and their work is largely detached from the human capital and labour which have made our state what it was at its finest.

The model for UC which they seem to be pushing is one with no room for knowledge or learning for its own sake.  It will be a stripped down, ruthless shell, designed to push students through their degrees (which will get increasingly narrower) at a speed that will prohibit their growth as thoughtful citizens or their ability to take advantage of the curiosity which presumably brought them to such a wonderful institution in the first place.

They are people for whom public service is an afterthought, something to cap off a profitable career.  There’s nothing wrong with making money, but it is not an endeavour that equips anyone to govern the world’s finest university system, which is committed to a set of moral values often sharply at deviance with those practised by these people in their business lives.  One of the Regents, Richard Blum—Senator Feinstein’s husband—has been accused of war profiteering and cashing in on his wife’s political influence.  He has also invested heavily in for-profit education.

I’m not convinced that an appointed board is the best way to run a public university (and some years back concrete proposals for the democratisation of the Regents circulated).  But what we need on whatever governing body UC ends up with is a little more partisanship.  Not partisanship in the party-political sense.  But partisanship for UC.  People who can articulate the vision of our university, and who demonstrably share its values.  They, and whomever replaces Yudof (a replacement which I hope come very soon), should do what this group of apathetic administrators have failed to do—use their pulpit, their expertise, and their time and energy to create a movement to fight for the public version of the University of California, to which so many of us owe much. 

UC’s leadership could have a quarter-million volunteers, a huge alumni network, and access to some of the state’s biggest brains if they ever got off their backsides and took the fight to the state in a serious way—the cute little UC4 California messages don’t count.  They could draft a raft of interlinked propositions to overhaul our state’s broken political structure.  They could start the ball rolling for a constitutional convention.  They could design an overhaul of the notoriously fractured system for funding education in the state.  They could re-invigorate the Master Plan and make the case for its value to those Californians who mistakenly view UC as a detached ivory tower reserved solely for the affluent and privileged. 

There are umpteen ways in which a committed Board of Regents, with members who share UC’s values, could make a serious contribution to our University.  Administrators (on campuses and at UCOP) who were neither resigned to nor disposed towards the privatisation and commercialisation of UC could have a similarly dramatic impact if they decided to take a pro-active approach to saving UC from the political structures, state disinvestment, and deliberate commodification of higher education which threaten its historic mission.

But we need a clean slate.  The current Board of Regents have proven themselves uncommitted and incompetent, and the same could be said for the top tier of administrators charged with running UC.  They should go.  And soon, so that the University of California can begin the long hard slog towards regaining its status as California’s preeminent public institution. 

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