Monday, December 3, 2012

Dirks on Berkeley's Future

UC Berkeley’s Chancellor-designate, Nicholas Dirks, recently gave an interview to the student paper, The Daily Californian.  The interview was ostensibly an opportunity for Dirks to lay out a vision for Berkeley.  His responses are by and large fairly boilerplate, but there is something in both their tone and substance which illustrates a familiar line of thinking.  Its familiarity is dispiriting, because the thought process bears an unsettling resemblance to that which characterised the approach of out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau during his inglorious tenure at the helm of the state’s flagship public university.

The Daily Cal asked Dirks about his “past experience with student protests” given Berkeley’s history.  Dirks referred to “a couple of major hunger strikes” at Columbia (his current academic home), responding, “In 2006, when I was the [executive vice president for the arts and sciences] in my current role, I worked very closely with my colleagues and the senior administration and was one of the major participants in a nightly series of discussions with representatives of the hunger strikers.  We actually were able to come up with a signed memorandum of understanding at the end that was mutually satisfactory to all the parties involved”.

It took me a moment to work out what I found so unnerving about this response.  I think it is the fact that Dirks’ mindset suggests that protesters are an “interest group” of sorts to be managed, contained, dealt with.  They are troublemakers with whom you sign “memorandums of understanding”, rather than community members who are raising issues of fundamental importance to the university as a whole.  They are not partners in the endeavour of thinking about the future of our university campus.  Protestors got batons, rubber bullets, and nauseating excuses from Birgeneau.  It seems that they can expect little better than indulgence from Dirks, which is somehow almost more insulting.

Inevitably, Dirks was asked about the “ever-dwindling state support” and the balance between public and private funding.  “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back”, he replied, “to the 30 percent (state) funding days, as much as I would like to believe that is possible ... Unless I’m reading the tea leaves wrong, I think we’ll be very happy if we can maintain the level of state support, at least the level of percentage of revenue that we currently have”. 

If this is a demonstration of Dirks’ bargaining skills, I hope he’ll forgive me for being somewhat underwhelmed.  Perhaps he doesn’t understand a critical point, but to comment on a vision for a campus of the University of California is to do more than simply make a statement about a particular institution of higher learning and education.  It is to engage in a debate about the future of our state, the endurance of our public institutions, the maintenance of a representative, accessible, democratic, accountable, idealistic, and just framework for organising a society.

So to say that you’d be happy with the pittance your institution is being granted after decades of disinvestment instead of fighting tooth and nail to return UC to its rightful position at the heart of the state’s economy, society, and culture, is unacceptable.  It represents a deeply pessimistic and profoundly fatalistic view about our public sphere.

Moreover, to concede this impermissible status quo is particularly unforgivable because we stand at a moment when state politics have shifted, however tentatively, in favour of UC for the first time in many years.  The party which has long championed the public character of the University of California—many of its representatives doing so with greater passion than the university’s administrators at a time when its Regents were setting about wrecking its public character—now has a supermajority in the Assembly and the Senate.  Members of the state legislature have proposed reforms to our unworkable and irresponsible structure of government, and the levy of new taxes with the explicit aim of relieving our besieged institution.  The last thing we need is leadership which lacks interest in rolling back disinvestment and renewing the partnership with the public when representatives of that public reach out a hand.  Berkeley does not need another Chancellor who is content with pushing a transition to the harsher, more market- and less citizen-oriented version of the University envisioned by the Regents and their ilk.

The incoming Chancellor should surely be aware of these developments in state governance, and if he is not, that ignorance is deplorable.  I suggest that Dirks dispense with the tea leaves and pick up a newspaper.  I realise that the new Chancellor, like the old one, is limited in what he can achieve.  But what he can do is set the right tone, show that he understands the dismay with which the campus community has viewed the capitulation by the out-going dispensation, and speak in more human and less bureaucratic terms about what our future has the potential to look like.  Neither the University of California nor Berkeley in particular are ready just yet to abandon our role in California, and with the passage of Prop 30 voters signalled that they might be having second thoughts about rupturing that relationship.  The time is ripe for an activist, affirmative Chancellor prepared to take advantage of the shifting public mood. 

Dirks’ debut in the Daily Cal does not impress.  Playing defence at this point is unacceptable, and students should communicate as much to their new Chancellor. 

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