Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Wanted: Leadership in California's Higher Ed Sphere

Initially, it’s difficult to know how to interpret the actions of California State University trustees in raising the salaries of the campus presidents.  These people can’t be stupid.  They’ve led successful lives and have been chosen to oversee campuses at the nation’s largest university system.

The alternative is to assume that they’re behaving in an openly corrupt fashion, entirely ignoring the obvious set of ethics that should guide them, and couldn’t care less what the public think.  If this is, in fact, the case, they are abusing their positions.  But they don’t seem to care, and there don’t seem to be serious consequences for their actions. 

As the Los Angeles Daily News notes, the trustees simply don’t get it if they think that using private foundation money to pay for the salary increases somehow makes things okay.  “It looks bad”, the paper’s editorial board noted, “when the trustees find ways to give the presidents as much as they can under the rules instead of asking the campus bosses to bite the bullet until public universities’ financial crisis passes”. 

That’s right up to a point, but it misses a vital connection.  If CSU’s leadership (and UC’s for that matter) continues to behave in such a reprehensibly oblivious if not callously defiant manner, the public universities’ crisis will not pass.  Their actions exacerbate the crisis.  Because the only way out is to persuade Californians that these institutions that have served the state so well for so long are worth the investment—for their contributions to vital service sectors like education and health, for their promotion of equality across the state, for their work in creating a well-informed citizenry.

Spending money on raising the salary of someone who already makes well upwards of $200,000 per year at a moment when people are struggling badly is the wrong way to convince Californians that they should support CSU. 

The Daily News concludes: “If these unpopular pay raises reflect the calibre of decisions that Californians can expect from the CSU trustees, maybe what we should be paying for is smarter trustees”.  That’s absolutely right.  Moreover, campus and university leadership at CSU and UC have proven so spectacularly inept when it comes to making the case for their institutions that it’s not clear that it makes any sense to rely on recruitment methods and criteria that seek to attract high-flying, disloyal, opportunistic managers whose primary interest seems to be the aggrandisement of wealth. 

It looks to me as though university administrators have come to constitute an isolated cadre of purely self-interested cronies, who scratch one another’s backs while mauling the institutions they’re meant to be serving.  They’ve become parasites, feeding off their host institutions, their irresponsible behaviour and uninspired leadership dooming their campuses, and then moving on to the next high-paying position. 

I think it’s time to turn California’s inept, corrupt, and dangerous university leadership out of the public sector, where they are doing not only short-term damage, but are also actively undermining the future of that once-vibrant sector which remains the key to both our economic welfare and social equality. 

Sadly, it is not simply in the arena of higher education—a sphere that California once led globally—where we are falling behind.  The state is suffering from declining per pupil education spending (no one who has been in a twenty-first century classroom in our increasingly diverse and complicated state can dismiss per pupil spending as a critical factor) and from the nasty, ill-judged efforts of the Republican Party to slander public school teachers.  We are taking a real step backwards in abandoning the commitment to early childhood education, given the profound importance of this sphere to children’s long-term well-being along any number of social and economic indicators. 

And we should be clear about which political party is responsible.  In a statement that identifies him as a walking, talking idiot, in a party full of buffoons, State Senator Joel Anderson (Republican) declared that “there should be no doubt that Governor Brown has thrown our children’s education under the tracks to build this train”.  Besides ascribing to an increasingly tired view of our politics through an immoral budgetary lens which suggests a zero-sum game, Anderson is either ignorant about his party’s effects on our state’s ability to govern itself, or else deliberately lying to the public.

California’s inability to undertake the kind of big infrastructural projects which would put us back on the cutting edge is a direct result of the chaos that the corporate- and Republican-led Proposition 13 introduced into our politics.  Year after year, in the name of “choice”, the Republican Party has assaulted public schools, persistent in its desire to re-invent the wheel in a private and unequal setting.  For a party supposedly bent on rooting out waste, the GOP in California has developed a perverse obsession with building a wasteful, unnecessary, socially-regressive private education sector, and has promoted its sad vision by deliberately seeking to starve California’s schools of the funding they need to function properly. 

Community Colleges, bastions for working class advancement, and spaces where Californians of all ages and interests could seek out career and personal enrichment, are looking to turn themselves into bleaker institutions altogether through their embrace of utilitarianism and their move towards rationing which will is a direct blow against the notion that knowledge and learning for their own sake are good things.

UC’s leadership is reduced to effectively blackmailing the state, telling students that their fees will increase further in the coming year if Brown’s tax measure fails.  Every fee hike (the cost of a still-wonderful UC education has doubled since I entered the system as an undergraduate in 2004) erodes the universities’ public character, turning them into less representative institutions. 

On the one hand, UC’s leadership is right to say that we need action in order to be able to halt the seemingly-inexorable march towards unaffordability, but like their tone-deaf, knuckleheaded counterparts at CSU, they have been utterly ineffective at lobbying Sacramento and fighting for higher education in the state.  If they were serious about their efforts to preserve UC’s mission and status, they would realise that a one-time tax measure is useless.  UC’s leadership should, from the beginning, have used its wide network, brainy constituency, and position at the core of the state’s higher education sphere, to promote more wide-ranging reform that would rationalise the state’s governance and enable us to have an intelligent conversation about our priorities. 

We need new leadership at the top of our public universities.  The incumbents and their cultural counterparts have damaged the brand, the fibre, and the functionality of the institutions they represent, and their mal-administration, together with the damage being done to our public schools by the dirty politics of minority rule, will have serious consequences for our state’s future.


  1. Nice post, very interesting and easy to digest. I'll keep reading your post.