A e-mail I sent to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau on the subject of his recent co-authored paper, "Modernizing Governance at the University of California"
Dear Chancellor Birgeneau,
Congratulations. On your impending retirement as Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley at the end of the year. On the publication of the paper “Modernizing Governance at the University of California: A Proposal that the Regents Create and Delegate Some Responsibilities to Campus Boards”. And on the total transformation of Berkeley during your tenure as Chancellor.
When I arrived at the University of California, Irvine, in 2004 as a freshman, tuition and fees were roughly half of what undergraduates are charged today. The price tag of a UC education had already ticked upwards by the time I came to Berkeley’s history department as a graduate student in 2008, but since then has leapt up higher and faster than before. California’s gaping democratic deficit which, in turn, has generated a severe financial deficit, has led the state to disinvest from all three tiers of higher education. Today, Berkeley is taking in more international students and more out of state students than before, while receiving less funding from the state of California than ever before. The Legislative Analyst’s Office tells us that this is a raw deal for Californians, something that is hardly news to students, faculty and staff on UC’s campuses.
These trends, and the reaction to them, are worrisome, because the University of California is an institution towards which I’ve come to feel much gratitude and loyalty. For I tend to identify myself as a University of California student first, and a Berkeley student second. But I am not more proud of one than the other because for me, they are one and the same. My Berkeley experience has been a continuation of my Irvine experience, and while most students in the system—probably the world’s finest and most ambitious system of public higher education—have only experienced one campus, I believe that all students benefit from being a part of that system, that community, both in concrete institutional and idealistic philosophical terms.
And because UC has been my home for eight years, it pains me to see the extent to which your leadership has failed not only Berkeley, the campus in your charge, but the system as a whole. Efforts by yourself, by UC President Mark Yudof, and the UC Board of Regents to check disinvestment by the state, to rally the campus community to the defence of UC, and to take the case for UC to Californians have been notable chiefly for their amateurism and total lack of success. But you have failed Berkeley and UC not just through a lack of success.
The paper “Modernizing UC” will undoubtedly serve as your valedictory gift to the campus, and perhaps your greatest legacy. I have no doubt that if its conclusions are accepted, it will also be looked back upon as a marker in the decline and ultimately the end of UC as a system. It is not the first occasion on which you have advocated steps which would lead to the break-up of the University of California. And the recommendations, that the education of Californians be treated according to whims of the market and that the premise of universality underpinning the system be broken down by allowing campuses to charge fees at their discretion, will undoubtedly appeal to many in an era in which collective ambition seems to be giving way to morally wayward profiteering. These recommendations are also clearly not in the interests of a majority of campuses and are transparently aimed at detaching those campuses which can trade on their reputations from what administrators see as the encumbrances of membership in a public institution with a public responsibility to California’s citizens.
Under your watch, a half-hearted defence of Berkeley’s status as a responsibility of the state of California in keeping with its membership in the University of California has been accompanied by an unseemly rush to degrade the public character of the University. This degradation is being achieved with remarkable rapidity as the burden of funding has shifted from resting fairly and squarely on the shoulders of society at large to sitting far more heavily and uneasily on the backs of students and their families in the form of unconscionably high fees.
Some place blame for the spectacular fee increases at the feet of campus and system administrators. They are wrong. No amount of administrative bloat, real or imagined, could make up for the state’s brutal disinvestment. Administrators, yourself included, may have shown remarkably little foresight in failing to anticipate state disinvestment, but the ultimate cause for the increasing cost to students and families lies unequivocally in the structure of state politics. But just as those who wish to blame the administration fail to see the big picture, you and your colleagues failed to act to counter disinvestment and, more seriously, failed to understand Berkeley’s role as a part of the University of California and, therefore, as an institution that has an obligation to work for the public good of California and its citizens.
In the course of this failure, you neglected to reach out a hand to frustrated students, staff and faculty, and under your direction, the campus police force responded to protestors’ justified if sometimes misdirected anger with a mailed fist. Not once, but repeatedly. And you didn’t simply stand by and watch, but time after time, went through painful-looking contortions to justify the horrifyingly violent and utterly unjustifiable treatment of the students who are ultimately placed in your charge—by their parents, by their community, by their state, and ultimately, by those students’ own desire to be part of a larger, nobler endeavour, one which the behaviour of you and your colleagues has sullied very badly. I will always treasure your messages to the campus during these moments of violence as sterling examples of moral and intellectual dishonesty.
So, while we can’t hold you directly responsible for UC’s moral and financial crisis, we can and do hold you responsible for the exacerbation of those crises, for the division of the campus community against itself, and for shamelessly advocating the break-up of the place we call home. The anti-communitarian spirit in which you have launched these latter efforts sends a clear signal to the Berkeley community that you have given up on the state of California. Given up without a fight. Moreover, it sends a dispiriting message to our community members at other campuses that you have betrayed UC. And in so doing, you are betraying Berkeley’s core values.
Undoubtedly, you would have preferred to be Chancellor in happier times, when Californians held UC in high regard and regarded it as “worth it”, and when national economic crises, nationwide political trends, and California’s peculiar political winds were not buffeting Berkeley and the UC system. But as it is, you failed to rise satisfactorily to the challenges facing Berkeley, and failed to chart a path that would secure both the financial future and ethical ends of Berkeley and of the University of California system, of which our campus should remain part.
An Antipodean savant once complained about the introduction by the small-minded of “market economics” into places where it didn’t belong, and resented the dismal view that “a beautiful day has not value if they can’t sell it”. The ideal of public higher education in California, inextricably linked in the eyes of many, many people in the state, the nation, and around the world to UC Berkeley, is not unlike Fred Dagg’s “beautiful day”. There is something morally troublesome and intellectually sordid about trying to hitch it to the market, something which degrades its efforts and dispirits its community. I wish your successor, whomever he or she may be, better luck in fighting for Berkeley’s future, and hope that a commitment to maintaining its membership in UC and its public character—something sadly lacking during your own tenure—proves to be a litmus test during the selection process.