Thursday, October 11, 2012

Berkeley's Chancellor Search Could be an Opportunity

The future of the University of California is on the ballot this autumn in the form of Prop 30, a tax measure that our fumbling Governor placed on the ballot as a makeshift effort to temporarily arrest California’s slide into the chasm created by our democratic deficit.  The UC Regents have warned that if Prop 30 fails to pass students will be hit by a 20% mid-year fee increase, a move which would continue the unconscionable rise in the cost of attending Berkeley and its sister institutions. 

While the Regents are right to highlight the correlation between steady state disinvestment and the increasing cost of attending UC, those same Regents have been a little too eager in going down the easy route of raising fees, admitting more out-of-state students, and contemplating plans which imperil UC’s public character and threaten the unity of the University of California.  Out-going Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau did nothing to help his image as an administrator out-of-touch with his campus’ values—an image quite literally beaten ineradicably into the campus’ consciousness by a series of supine responses to police violence on his watch—when he penned a paper suggesting that UC campuses be allowed to charge differential tuition.  

Berkeley could use its search for a new Chancellor as an opportunity to change its approach to the crisis of the public universities in California.  To this point, UC’s engagement with disinvestment and the social and economic ills that this entails has been reactive.  In a manner out-of-keeping with its centrality to our state’s idealistic education structure and our economy, UC has chosen to play the game according to its rigged structure, instead of taking on California’s broken system of governance which makes decline a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. 

University of California leadership in general and Berkeley’s administration in particular, need to get off the back foot.  It’s great that UC is seeking to raise awareness about Prop 30.  Prop 30 is a necessary stopgap, and if it isn’t passed UC is contemplating some seriously destructive measures which would imperil the public character of the University of California, as well as its integrity as a state-wide system.  But what’s next?

We need to hear from UCOP and from Berkeley’s next Chancellor how they intend to act should Prop 30 pass.  Will they be content, as Birgeneau and Yudof have been, to deal with disinvestment on a crisis-by-crisis basis, their actions totally removed from the reality of state politics, their advocacy model hopelessly amateurish and doomed from the outset by its feeble understanding of the basic mathematics of state governance (a party composed of economic fundamentalists, literally pledged to the destruction of the public sphere, holds veto-power in Sacramento, so letter-writing campaigns to the legislature will have exactly zero impact)?  Or will they engage with the larger questions of comprehensive political reform which many would argue are our state’s only salvation? 

Some proponents of reform are pushing Prop 31, a measure which is prohibitively piecemeal, reprehensively undemocratic, and woefully inadequate in the face of California’s structural problems.  Could Berkeley and UC, with their large constituency, their intellectual clout, and their obvious centrality to our state’s welfare, play a role in remaking our politics?  Under our current leadership, the answer is ‘No’.  But perhaps commitment to doing so should be a litmus test for selecting our next Chancellor.  Intensified and more realistic engagement with our state’s ills would be of service to California and to our university community.

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