Thursday, May 10, 2012

They Smile, They Shake Hands, They Tell Jokes...On Us

As the California State University OK’d 10% raises for incoming campus Presidents, the University of California announced that it is pondering a 6% fee increase.  If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d wonder why all of these sorts of things—the decisions on administrative pay, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s call to break up UC, the fee increases occur near the end of the academic year or during summer (the decision about fees will likely be taken in July, when most UC students are not on campus).  If one didn’t know better, one could almost suspect that university officials were trying to prevent a serious conversation taking place on campus.  The UC Regents, who basically comprise a patronage network for the Governor rather than a thoughtful and representative collection of individuals committed to California’s public sphere, should at least have the PR savvy from the dodgy corporate channels most of them have swum in all the days of their lives to know that this looks bad.

Now let me qualify my criticism of the bumps-on-a-log who comprise UC and CSU leadership.  Given massive state disinvestment, at the point of each budget shortfall their options are pretty limited, and there’s a fair argument that fee hikes are all they can do. 

But what is striking and objectionable is that they don’t appear to have learnt anything over the last several years.  This week we saw President Obama complete his long-overdue and rather suspect (at least in terms of timing) evolution on the question of civil rights.  But UC ‘s administrators are so steadfast in their refusal to act on experience that Creationists might very well start citing them as evidence against evolution (unless, of course, palaeontologists turn the tables by arguing that dinosaurs continue to walk the earth in California’s higher ed sphere). 

So predictable and ineffective are their actions in the wake of each act of disinvestment that one can’t help but wonder whether they’re worth it, or whether we’re paying top-dollar for a bunch of bumbling amateurs who are flying by the seat of their pants and laughing all the way to the bank.  Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof praised the growing caste of high-earning bureaucrats as the “Tom Cruises of the academic world”.  He was actually referring to UC Davis’ Chancellor Linda Katehi when he made those remarks.  It is possible that you remember Chancellor Katehi...she was the woman who offered the world pathetic excuses when her campus police department pepper sprayed peacefully protesting students in the face.  A recent report was searing in itscondemnation of Katehi and the police, noting that Katehi herself “substantially undermined the goal of avoiding a physical confrontation” between students and police.

I’d like to see one concrete example of how having some flighty academic “celebrity”, motivated more by the promise of an exorbitant salary than by any loyalty or commitment, at the helm of a campus or university has done us any good (I’m personally of the opinion that a principled resignation would have a greater impact than anything any of these people have done on campus).  Our administrators demonstrated a signal lack of foresight in failing to anticipate state disinvestment.  They have failed dismally at checking that disinvestment.  And their handling of the predictable backlash from students and faculty has left them and their campus police forces looking by turns helpless, pathetic and dangerous.  What exactly are we paying for? 

In fact, the question of administrative pay at CSU (and the round of administrative salary increases at UC last year) provides a pretty good reason why these people are actually a very bad deal for public higher education in California.  CSU justified the pay increase for campus Presidents by reassuring the university community that the funds would come from non-public foundation funds. 

But just because you can do something (in this case award raises from non-public funds), it doesn’t mean that you should. 

To me, the move is one characterised by either rank stupidity or appalling greed.  Stupidity if they can’t recognise the consequences of their actions, and greed if they can but don’t care.  Because this kind of tone-deaf behaviour is killing higher education’s brand in the public eye.  And our behaviour and image and reputation will matter if we ever have the opportunity to ask the public to re-invest.  Californians will look at this behaviour and think it’s just like the bankers asking for a bailout from the public after they’ve been behaving like the money’s on tap for the last decade. 

The inappropriate market mentality of the cadre of elite administrators and their mind-boggling lack of self-awareness makes them a liability to the university.  It’s incredible that they could justify raising administrative salaries at a time when students are being charged more, courses and divisions are being cut, and library hours are being squeezed.  I realise that in the scheme of things we’re talking small change which doesn’t affect the big picture, but it’s the cluelessness that matters.  At a time when the last thing public institutions need is bad press, these borderline-corrupt jokers (who at CSU are already paid between $259,000 and $400,000 according to the San Francisco Chronicle) are behaving as though education dollars are some kind of slush-fund to aid them in their indefatigable propensity for self-promotion. 

The least CSU could do is ask the money to be directed to a neuroscientist to investigate what it is about the brains of these people that permits them to stumble doggedly on, utterly oblivious to the anger they are generating.  Or send it to a UCSF surgical team to see if they can implant some spine amongst our administrative elite.

In his infamous New York Times interview, UC President Mark Yudof explained, with more self-deprecation than he manages when negotiating his salary, that “I smile, I shake hands, I tell jokes”.  Well, the joke is on California this time.

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