UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Robert “there’s no e-mail in Asia” Birgeneau, recently announced that he is stepping down as Chancellor after presiding over the meteoric rise of student fees, the sacking of lecturers and staff, the evisceration of many academic departments, the abject failure to make the case to the state for the importance of public higher education, and attacks—not once, but on multiple occasions—by armed police on peaceful students.
I can’t say that I’ll miss the surreal e-mails from Birgeneau, or the accounts of his handling of worthy student protests. There was the e-mail that described the occupation of Wheeler Hall by a group of students as a “health and safety issue”, as though those students protesting the doubling of student fees in less than ten years were so many termites. Then there was the occasion when Birgeneau and his lackeys sent the Director of Counselling and Psychological services to chat with Wheeler occupiers, as though their unhappiness over the fact that their university, their home, being driven into the ground, was a psychological problem! Of course Birgeneau might be best-remembered on campus for criticising students who were caught on video being savagely beaten by heavily-armed UCPD officers. These students, Birgeneau opined, were “not non-violent”. The students in question had linked arms in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr’s universally-acclaimed nonviolent civil rights movement.
It was then that Birgeneau used the fact that he was in Asia, further scuppering UC’s state mission, as an excuse for not being “up” on events at his campus, something that hadn’t stopped him from haranguing students and praising the same police department which, two years earlier, had used truncheons and rubber bullets on similarly-peaceful students in the driving rain outside Wheeler Hall to the keening of fire alarms around campus and the death of the trust that should characterise relations between students, faculty, staff and administrators.
No, Birgeneau, his “aw shucks, I’m just Chancellor” act, his disdain for his students, and his gross incompetence when it came to mobilising the campus to fight for its survival...none of these things will be missed. Birgeneau’s greatest failing—and there are many to choose from—is that, through prioritising a brutal retrenchment on campus, failing to mobilise the campus community, bringing in high-flying, over-paid administrators as departments sagged and students assumed ever-greater burdens, and then dismissing students protests as misplaced, he created what has proved so far to be an irreparable tear in the campus community.
Because when students look for a target for their frustration, they do not see a political structure in Sacramento undemocratically weighted against any public social enterprise. The do not see the generations which, having come before them, took advantage of subsidised higher education, and too many members of which are now declining to pay their fair share in a way that is truly reprehensible. They do not see an increasingly selfish public which desperately needs to be reminded that accessible higher education is about more than degrees and jobs—that it’s about thinking critically, approaching the world afresh, and building thoughtful citizens, all of the things that our state urgently needs today.
What they see is a doddery man in a suit who thinks it is okay when police thrash students. Who covers his ears when they talk about inequality. Who thinks it is more important to pay someone six figures to fire their lecturers than it is to save their courses or even their major. And who thinks that there’s some point in going cap-in-hand to Sacramento, when the state’s finances have been commandeered by economic fundamentalists on a mission to dismantle California’s public sphere (and when sympathetic legislators, who comprise over 60% of the two houses, are in no position to help thanks to minority rule).
Birgeneau’s legacy is that Berkeley—the place where one would most expect the community of the University of California to cohere, to communicate, and to take well-thought out action—seems totally unable to get a grip on the nature or scale of the assault the university and its ideals are facing. Some members of that community want to rail against “fat cat” administrators. Some want to democratise the Regents (as useless and sorry a collection of political appointees as you’ll find anywhere). Some want to lobby Sacramento. Some want to host an academic conference. Some want to rage against the system—without bothering to identify what exactly the ‘system’ is. And most appear to favour burying their heads in the sand and hoping that someone else will do something, or that, miraculously, Californians will suddenly decide to begin funding UC again.
It was recently reported that it might very well be more affordable to attend an Ivy League university than a California State University or University of California campus. This is tragic, and shows how unwise disinvestment by the state from its public institutions is. The fact that affluent families and alumni of prestigious private universities are willing to hand over massive amounts of cash to places like Harvard demonstrates that they recognise the value of a good education and are willing to invest in it. It is the most curious of short-sightedness on the part of Californians that they are not willing to direct some of their wealth to the places that are the engines behind technological development, scientific advancement, social equality, and which train many of the people who perform essential services in our society (and by essential services I don’t mean moving money around or generating real estate bubbles).
The lesson that some take from the apparent ‘affordability’ of Ivy Leagues is that privatisation is the answer, that high fees and financial aid are the way of the future. But the Harvard model is not sustainable for the institutions like UC and CSU which educate our citizenry en-masse, and which are the real engines behind our state’s economic and social well-being. Not in the face of increasing inequality, unemployment and the complicated needs of an enormous and diverse state. Not if you think that higher education should be open to any qualified student for the simple reason that it opens minds and fosters the critical public that is at the heart of any democratic society. You can educate a select group of well-heeled students and a handful of economically, racially and socially marginal students thrown in for the sake of diversity in this way. You cannot fulfil the public mission of public higher education in a state like California using that model.
But Robert Birgeneau, in common with UC President Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof, failed to contribute even to the hackneyed conversation that Californians have been having about the future of their state. There’s the slimmest of chances that new leadership at Berkeley could place the campus and the university system as a whole in a position to start the state-wide debate that no one else seems to have the courage to initiate. But it would require more than a new face at the top. The entire campus community would have to overcome the still-dominant apathy and become more aware than ever of their place in a socially conscious and communitarian California—if, indeed, that is what we desire of our state.