Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happy Holidays from UC's Grinches


It was a big morning!  E-mails from both University of California President Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof and Berkeley Chancellor Robert “not non-violence” Birgeneau.  They were doing a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine, although they hadn’t entirely worked their roles out, and so it was more of a bad-cop-bad-cop routine, in which Yudof broke the news that California Governor Jerry Brown has UC in his sights for the latest round of statewide cuts (the majority of which are hitting education and healthcare services) and Birgeneau mugged you for your spare change.

So if you see a doddery-looking white-haired guy in a Santa suit with a can while you do your Christmas shopping, there’s a fair chance that it will not be a Salvation Army Santa, but rather the Chancellor of the world’s finest public university.  Begging for donations from students, faculty and staff in the face of the state’s disinvestment is, Birgeneau asserts, “bold action”.  Now it’s commendable to give money to Berkeley, and the generosity of students, faculty and staff in giving to Berkeley is a testament to their belief in its ideals at a time when a cadre of administrators in California Hall and at UCOP in Oakland are working to erode its public character.

But when passing the hat around comes to constitute “bold action” in the face of a right-wing attack on public institutions in California, you know that something’s wrong.   Birgeneau is anything but bold: his leadership is uninspired when not outright destructive, and if he has a serious agenda and advocacy strategy when it comes to defending Berkeley, he’s done a good job of hiding it. 

Yudof’s e-mail could basically have been written at any point in the last three years.  It begins, “We are extremely disappointed that UC is faced with yet another significant State budget reduction: the $100 million ‘trigger cut’ just announced.  This additional cut will exacerbate the fiscal challenge the University faces in the current year and place additional stress on the quality of education provided to UC students”.  Not sufficient stress, however, to discourage Yudof, even knowing that these cuts were coming, from asking the compliant Regents to hand out raises to 10 high-flying administrators.  

Yudof acts like it’s a surprise that UC is getting hit by these cuts, when they’ve been hitting the university system with a vengeance for the past few years, and have been decades in the making thanks to the twin legacies of Prop 13 (the creation of a choked-off, undifferentiated property tax system and, worst of all, the introduction of minority rule through supermajority requirements). 

“The University”, Yudof notes, “has consistently objected to additional mid-year cuts”, and “will ask to have this funding restored to UC at the beginning of the next fiscal year”.  That’s nice...I’m sure the chainsaw-wielding brigade that is the modern Republican Party will take as much note of Yudof’s current objections and requests as they have of all the other ones.  And the sympathetic Democratic legislators literally can’t do anything about this, because they are a few members short of the supermajority.  Governor Brown, had he demonstrated an iota of foresight, could have done something about the draconian cuts that public services in California are facing had he run a serious campaign in 2010 and worked from the start to get initiatives on the ballot for either the extension of modest tax increases or more serious measures for political reform in California. 

But instead, Brown, a Democratic governor, found himself in the position of announcing a series of damaging cuts on Tuesday.  These were cuts which he wrote into his own budget through the “trigger cut” mechanism.  According to the LA Times, these cuts will impact schools (and bus services in particular), libraries, prisons and disabled services. 

Oh, but all is not lost.  “We will continue to work closely”, Yudof wrote, “with State officials to develop a long-term revenue plan that will give the University much-needed financial stability”.  Yudof and Birgeneau’s advocacy efforts have yet to yield anything of substance: instead, each year, UC gets hit by another round of cuts and our administrators pledge to redouble their pathetic efforts, which to all appearances consist of going to Sacramento and explaining the importance of UC to Democratic and Republican legislators (who are now investigating police violence on campuses). 

In the case of the former, they are preaching to the choir, some members of which are much more outspoken than either Yudof or Birgeneau in defence of UC.  In the case of the latter, they are pleading with a group of feral political animals who have signed up to a project which prevents them from ever supporting revenue increases that might benefit their constituents and mandates their wholehearted participation in the dismantling of California’s public institutions.  It is no surprise that this model of advocacy is getting UC nowhere in the face of Republican minority rule.  What is surprising is that UC leadership doesn’t seem to have learned that this kind of approach doesn’t work. 

As so many of us have wondered so often before, where does this ineptitude on the part of these supposedly savvy administrators who feel entitled to massive salaries come from?  It can scarcely be attributed to ignorance of California’s political process...all you have to do is read a newspaper and add one plus one to understand that their efforts are doomed to failure in the context of California’s political structure.  It could be put down to abject laziness or a lack of commitment to the University. 

Or it could be, as Yudof and the oligarchic Regents have repeatedly noted, that they see UC’s crisis as an opportunity to “change the way we do business”, and to introduce the remorselessly cruel and anti-public logic of the marketplace into California’s finest and most idealistic institution, a place where there is no place for the mean-spirited, calculating devaluation of the greatest force for the promotion of equality and the fostering of a critical public in our state today.

If they can’t do us the favour of resigning, Yudof and Birgeneau should at least make one of their New Year’s resolutions to get serious about defending the University of California.

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