Sunday, May 6, 2012

Berkeley Joins the Firing Squad on Public Higher Education

UC Berkeley has now joined the short-sighted and irresponsible coalition that seems bent on killing off California’s finest public institution, the University of California.  Out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who has starred as a bumbling, destructive idiot in the campus’ dramas over the last several years, has for some time been a proponent of Berkeley going its own way.  The state Republican Party has been promoting an aggressive programme of disinvestment from California’s education sector, with a particular emphasis on starving California’s world-renown higher education sphere of funds.  The six-figure consultants, hired by UC’s gutless administrators even as the campus sacks lecturers and folds up academic departments, have reached similar conclusions: that UC in general and Berkeley in particular should look for ways to abandon their status as public institutions and transform themselves into mercenary, for-profit service-providers.

One proposal that has cropped up repeatedly in the course of this sordid conversation has been that UC campuses be allowed to charge differential tuition.  Berkeley’s administrators, heading the top-ranked of the campuses, have been particularly eager to embrace such a strategy, which would spell the end of the UC system and signal the abandonment of its public mission. 

The Sacramento Bee published a story which illustrates the character of the alternative universe in which proponents of privatisation reside.  Moody’s Investors Service, a ratings agency, cited the “uniqueness of individual campuses” as one reason why differential tuition would be a “‘credit positive for UC’”.  In a flow of corporate-speak, Moody’s suggested that the “‘system’s leading campuses could better utilize their market potential to generate new student revenues and offset continuing reductions in state support [harnessing UC’s] considerable untapped pricing power’”.

Of course individual campuses are unique in some respects.  But the whole point of the University of California is that students should be educated at all of the campuses to a rigorous academic standard, a goal that I think is achieved pretty well in spite of the greater fame of the likes of Berkeley and UCLA.  Moody’s rationalisation of robbing Californians of their wonderful university system also completely ignores that UC is a public good.  It was created by the investment of time, energy, and tax dollars belonging to Californians, in order to serve our state’s students and society.  It is not about a bottom line, and it is not about making a profit. 

Mass public education, after all, will never yield a tangible economic return...not one to which you can attach a dollar-sign and a number.  But it yields something far more important, and something that the most profitable privatised education system could not yield: a large number of educated citizens whose social and economic possibilities have been inescapably widened, and whose lives have been enriched.  It brings together people from a variety of social and economic backgrounds, and puts them on an equal footing in terms of their qualifications and intellectual heft.  It allows researchers to undertake projects in the spirit of free scientific and intellectual inquiry rather than standing cap-in-hand before corporations and industries to do their bidding in aid of short-term trends and profits (English academics are being forced down this sorry road by privatisation). 

It’s extraordinary how this corporate gibberish stands so removed from the central, human aspect of an educational endeavour.  The University of California is not about “pricing power” or “market potential”.  It is about the power of public service and the promotion of human potential.  But rather than harness the existing human energy and potential which its campuses command, UC’s administrators, both at the campus and UCOP levels, have opted to violate the University’s public charter by pricing increasing numbers of Californians out and increasing the number of out-of-state students (at the expense of Californians). 

In a “tit-for-tat” kind of mentality, their actions make sense, because Californians (particularly comparatively well-off elderly and middle-aged and middle-class voters who benefited from the state’s public sphere in their youths) have already violated their contract with UC by starving the system of funds and forcing it to begin treating students like customers who are welcome only if they can pay (many receive financial aid, but exorbitant textbook prices and ridiculous costs of living remain a deterrent, and high fees deter first-in-their-family attendees).  To be fair, Californians haven’t been given the opportunity to give UC a “thumbs-up” or “-down” yet.  But they have been content to condone a political structure which empowers an ever more delusional right-wing fringe, comprised of oath-swearing economic fundamentalists, and they have made their disapproval of either increased taxation or the rational reform of Proposition 13 unclear. 

But even in the face of this small-minded disinvestment, one would have hoped that real proponents of public higher education would have launched a serious effort to marshal alumni, current students, parents, and the public at large in support of UC.  Instead, UC’s lackadaisical President, Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof, launched a fund-raising and letter-writing campaign, demonstrating the same pathetic amateurism, extraordinarily limited vision, and total misunderstanding of California’s politics that have characterised most of his efforts

Undoubtedly the state of affairs at UC would trouble me less if I didn’t have to see it all up close—the obscene remuneration to administrators during a time of cuts, the slashing of departments and courses, the skyrocketing tuition, the nastiness in so much public commentary.  And it would be less personal if UC wasn’t a home to me, and if I haven’t seen, every day for the last eight years, what a wonderful institution it is, a real testament to the power of a community to invest in its future.

It’s been hard enough seeing the anti-public brigade, the hateful right-wing commentators, an ill-informed public, and disloyal administrators sandbagging California’s preeminent public institution.  It’s worse when the very structures and interests created by public disinvestment cause the University to turn on itself, ransacking the values and make-up of an institution and an idea about human potential which has until now been—and should remain—the property of the people of California. 

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