Tuesday, August 7, 2012

CSU Leadership: Time to Mix Politics and Academics?

Last week Dan Morain speculated in the Sacramento Bee about a seemingly-unlikely choice to head up the California State University system—perennial candidate for state office Bill Lockyer, former state Senate leader and current state Treasurer. 

Morain laid out a few of the key objections to CSU being run by someone who has dabbled in the world of politics as opposed to that of academia, noting, “What works in the Legislature doesn’t sit well on the 25-seat board of Trustees for CSU.  Trustees see themselves as insulated from politics” (and from reality, one might add, given the pay raises they’ve awarded to administrators even as they hit students with higher tuition).  It’s a view shared by those within the university system as well.  One Sac State professor, less than enthusiastic about Lockyer, was quoted by the Bee saying that “I would like to see someone who knows what we do.  Our mission is to teach and help students learn.  It is important to have someone who has done that”. 

While I don’t know that Lockyer himself would be a good choice to head CSU, some of the arguments outlined above ring pretty hollow.  The central challenges today for system-wide leadership in California’s higher education sphere are to secure funding from the state for their institutions, to preserve the public character of those institutions (this is linked in large measure to funding and tuition levels), and to clarify the position of higher education in relation to state government.  Each of these challenges demonstrates the extent to which state politics govern the future of CSU. 

Now in my eighth year at CSU’s sister system, the University of California, I can tell you what advocacy model doesn’t work.  UC Berkeley’s public face, outgoing Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, proved utterly ineffective at uniting the campus community in the face of the serious threat posed to its character and sustainability by the state of California’s brutally precipitate disinvestment.  In fact, he managed to create artificial chasms between campus interests which should have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder.  This is probably more a question of poor temperament and poor judgment on Birgeneau’s part than a product of his academic origins.

But Birgeneau’s approach was more than a little arrogant.  He believed that he and the other steadily-growing cadre of administrators could secure an agreement to fund higher education without needing the campus community on-side.  And, stabbing UC’s other campuses in the back, Birgeneau held up the threat of Berkeley going its own way, effectively abdicating its public role.  The Chancellor has actually drawn up plans to diminish the influence of the system-wide public mission, conveniently leaving UC’s top campuses free to become as elitist as they like.

The desire to keep negations as narrow as possible and to embrace the early steps towards privatisation also characterised the approach of the system-wide leadership.  Led by University of California President Mark Yudof, a ‘professional’ administrator whose efforts have turned out to be agonisingly amateurish, UCOP attempted the same.  They sought to lobby the legislature and other state politicians, utterly ignoring the mathematical reality which governs the realm of the possible in California and refusing to countenance a bolder campaign which would acknowledge that reality and attempt to devise a workable solution.

These are not mistakes someone with even a passing familiarity with California’s state politics would have made.  Such a person would, one hopes, have realised the futility of lobbying the state’s broken institutions and instead, acknowledging the extent to which the fate of higher education is bound up in the structure of politics, have sought to use all the influence of the university system to devise structural reform which would not only put California’s preeminent public institutions on a safer footing, but have the added benefit of rationalising our state politics.  Such a move, in addition to facing up to reality, would also be in keeping with our universities’ public service mission.

It is also, incidentally, hard to imagine that anyone with a pulse on public opinion in California would prove as spectacularly unresponsive and, indeed, as blatantly disrespectful as CSU’s Trustees who have signed off on salary increases for administrators at the same time that student fees are soaring and academic divisions are coming under sustained attack.  Campuses which already have to make hard calls about engaging in ‘bidding wars’ to retain ‘top’ faculty clearly lack a sense of both priority and mission if they are going to spend their time and money solicitously fostering the welfare of a cadre of fairly inept and leech-like administrators.

The more legitimate opposition to a political appointment like Lockyer is, to put it crudely, the ‘loyalty’ question.  Morain points out that Lockyer is a long-time ally of California Governor Jerry Brown, and wonders whether his bid might be aided by Brown’s ability to influence the appointment of the Chancellor through his ability to appoint CSU Trustees.  But, given his service in state politics and the interests he has accrued over those years, would Lockyer be a wholehearted advocate for CSU, or would he comprise a kind of fifth-column inside the university, prepared to represent interests other than those of students, faculty and staff?

This is in some respects tied to the question of whether a Lockyer would have sufficient understanding of and appreciation for what the California State University system does.  He would undoubtedly be a quick study, but would he have the commitment?  The campus community should have the opportunity to grill Lockyer or any other candidate to see where he stands on issues of funding, on the California Master Plan, on admissions, and on the public character of CSU.  When the Chancellor makes the case for CSU, they will do so along lines which reflect their view of the system’s current, historic, and future role, and faculty, staff and students would be right in demanding to hear what their prospective leadership’s views on such matters are, and how that leadership plans to advocate for those views.  The CSU community must ensure that its leadership is prepared to lobby actively and aggressively, and not to treat the Chancellorship as a career-capping political perk, to be piloted on cruise-control. 

The fate of CSU, like that of the California Community Colleges and the University of California, is inextricably wrapped up in the direction of state politics.  The administrative leadership of these university systems must abandon their state of denial and acknowledge that they are, instead, living in the state of California, where they can live neither blissfully compartmentalised lives or fantasise about some iron curtain that divides public universities—which exist to serve the citizens of California—from public policy.  Whether that means a Chancellor with long experience in state government or one from the academic world who is prepared to pursue a more aggressive and creative lobbying effort, I don’t know.  But a behind-closed-doors appointment by Brown of a political ally whose views on the role of the nation’s largest public university system are something of an unknown would be a less-than-ideal start to the relationship between CSU and its new administrative head.

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