Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chancellor's Pay IS an issue at UC Berkeley

“Greetings, visitors from outer space!  You have arrived in a place called California.  The weather is nice, the scenery is pleasing to the eye.  But we are short on cash, divided by our politics, and sensitive to impingements on the public purse.  So behave accordingly!”  So should read the sign greeting the UC Regents outside of their monthly meetings, and the new UC Berkeley Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.


I have no idea where the UC Regents live.  I suspect that they’re scattered around the urban centres of the state, and convene for periodic meetings to decide on matters of great importance for the future of the state’s, the nation’s, and the globe’s preeminent system of public higher education.  But when I read about some of their decisions and hear some of their convoluted logic, I can’t help but wonder whether they’re actually beamed down from a space-ship for each of these meetings.  They appear so insulated from reality, so unaware of the world in which they live, that I have to question their ability to do their job.

Their latest move has been to approve a $50,000 pay raise for Berkeley’s incoming chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.  This move comes during a decade when the campus, the system, and students have been feeling an increasingly uncomfortable pinch.  The fact that student fees and administrative pay have been rising in concert says very little that is comforting to students.  It is, however, very clarifying with regard to the thinking of the Regents and the cadre of administrators which is throwing its weight around the halls of our campuses. 

Put things in perspective.  The Regents, UCOP and many UC students, together with their Cal State counterparts and Democrats around the state just finished making a passionate case to voters that they needed to dig deeper into their pockets to fund their prized academic institutions.  This was necessary to offset cuts which would otherwise be coming our way, cuts which would force up the tuition of students and damage academic divisions.  The voters acquiesced to higher taxes (albeit on a handful of their members), something unusual in California.  And now money is being spent on a $50,000 raise for an administrator. 

The image this creates—of the Regents, Chancellors, and UCOP breaking out the champagne after averting devastating cuts to the university, and rewarding themselves rather than those members of our community who are bearing the burden of state disinvestment—is unhelpful to put it mildly.  Students, after all, are paying the same unconscionably high levels of tuition today that they were before the passage of Prop 30.  Our Governor is still talking about the need for belt-tightening and austerity.  These people are, in other words, the Mitt Romneys of the higher education world--they're out of touch and they couldn't care less.

In the defence of these extraterrestrial administrators, as reported by the Mercury News, the Regents bleated that “the pay raise would be funded by private donations to UC Berkeley’s foundation”.  This is precisely the same argument leveraged by CSU Trustees when they defended the pay raises they awarded to campus presidents at a time when students were paying unconscionably high fees and academic divisions are taking a beating.  But guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  If UC can forage up so much as a penny, that money, irrespective of the source, should go towards tuition relief, the maintenance of academic divisions, our libraries and collections, or other campus essentials.

As it is, the actions of the UC Regents are giving cover to business-minded critics of the university who would like to see it drop its commitment to building citizenship and fostering critical thinking amongst a large number of the state’s students (with the support of the public) in favour of a for-profit model which turns out employees to staff those industries which the business-community, its eye fixed firmly on a short-term horizon, deems essential. (Another big problem, stemming from the corrupt if perfectly legal method of the appointment of Regents, is that they often are the business-minded critics, and so operate at UC either in spite of or because of considerable conflict of moral interest.)

We hear, again and again, the argument about the need for effective administrators.  But I would like to know exactly what it is we are paying for when we give someone occupying the office of Chancellor, an office which already comes with money that looks pretty darn good to most of us, a raise.  It’s not campus leadership.  It’s not efficacy in advocacy.  It’s certainly not progressive thinking about the changing nature of the university.

The rhetoric of the 1% versus the 99% may be inadequate to fully describe the relations between different sectors of the increasingly-divided campus community.  But it is certainly not inaccurate.  Operation Excellence, the exaltation of “high powered” administrators, the insistence that Berkeley deserves “only the best” of the campus-corporate types to sit in California Hall...these things offer very little that is concrete to the university in technical terms, and exactly nothing whatsoever in terms of values and culture.

Many of us have sought for some years now to argue that the real blame lies with Sacramento, a dysfunctional political structure, and a party comprised of zealots and economic fundamentalists, rather than with campus leadership.  But that is a difficult and ever-more unsustainable argument to maintain when our campus and system representatives to Sacramento are letting us down so badly, when our leadership looks like a part of the predatory class behind our ills rather than an opposition to it, and when that same leadership—again at the system and campus level—is so offensively tone deaf to the pain which students are feeling and to the straits in which the state finds itself.

It is not often that I’d find myself in agreement with Governor Brown, but he was right to say that Dirks’ raise “does not fit within the spirit of servant leadership that I think will be required over the next few years”.  If they are smart, the Regents should reconsider their suggestion, Dirks should make clear that he does not want or need this raise, and the administrative leadership  of the University of California should start behaving like a public body primarily concerned with the welfare of its students and academics—the people who do the real work on our campuses. 

Otherwise, they shouldn’t be surprised when they face a restive campus.

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