Sunday, January 27, 2013

Replacing University of California President Mark Yudof

University of California President, Mark Yudof, recently announced that he would be drawing his tenure as head of California’s research university system to a close, stepping down in August.  During his tenure, student fees rose at a steady rate to unconscionable levels, and police positioned themselves as defenders of campus and system administrators against the campus communities, making ready use of shocking violence against students, staff and faculty.  The state of California has continued to disinvest from the system, a slide that was only temporarily checked in November.  UC has worked feverishly to create a new caste of administrators, separated from students, faculty and staff not only by a gaping pay chasm, but by their failure to commit to making the University a friendly, open, accountable, democratic, and public space. 

At the same time that he plaintively (and unsuccessfully) pleaded with the public and legislators to re-invest in UC, Yudof and his supervisors on the Board of Regents showed the public how they would use those funds: creating more administrative positions as departments lost faculty and staff; and raising salaries for administrators as students’ fees rose inexorably.  He launched reviews tasked with charting UC’s future, and these reached few conclusions which dispelled the view on campuses that Yudof and the Regents were committed to privatising the University and introducing the remorseless, soulless, short-termist, and anti-social illogic of the market into a system dedicated to citizenship, the public good, and freedom of inquiry and discovery over the long-term.

So I suspect that there will be few on UC campuses who will shed any tears over Yudof’s departure.  Many will and should see this as an opportunity to pivot away from the harsher, more harried place we have become in the past several years, our campus and University communities riven by disputes and disparities. 

We should seek a replacement who recognises that the University of California is at the economic, social, political, and cultural heart of the Golden State.  That the research and teaching at this institution drives developments in all of those fields, but the University also aspires to act as a kind of conscience to a diverse state which is in the process of being re-founded amidst long-heralded demographic shifts, and to help Californians understand that we have nothing to fear from this re-founding. 

We need leadership that complements a critical mind with a compassionate heart.  Who is willing to tackle the issues around UC’s future that the Governor has been raising in the past weeks, but in a consultative, democratic fashion, and without succumbing to the desire to reject the human contact and relations that are critical to the idea of a University as a community which is more than the sum of its departments and classes and degree-holders.

We need most of all leadership which understands that making decisions about fees, making judgments about the value of degrees and major fields, making calls about where to direct funding, and making representations to our state legislature and public are political actions.  These are not decisions, judgements, calls and representations that one man in a suit can make, not even one backed by the Board of Regents, a group of individuals and an institution which has been fast losing legitimacy in recent years as students and faculty increasingly question the basis for appointments (political favours to one governor or other), for decision-making (highly undemocratic), and judgment (the experiences that these people bring from an unforgiving corporate world). 

It was telling that in a sloppy, hurried few-week campaign last autumn, our prevaricating Governor, Jerry Brown, was able to do more to direct the attention of the university community towards our plight than Yudof ever was during his five years at UC.  Only Yudof knows whether his decision to ignore and permit campus authorities to stifle, sometimes rather brutally, the commendable resurgence of democracy and activism on our campus, was the result of deliberation or of basic laziness and a misreading of his job description.  But the consequences for UC have been more serious that we will be able to appreciate for some time.

After three years of getting the hard end of police batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and official indifference in the face, students seem to me to have reverted to caution, cynicism, and apathy.  People were quick to sign petitions about Prop 30 (the measure which, far from marking a re-investment in UC, simply represents a stop-gap measure to avert the slide) and to reject meddling with the venerable campus logo.  But the campuses remain reprehensibly quiet on the question of the fitness of Berkeley’s new chancellor, the unrepresentativeness of the UC Regents, the replacement of Yudof, and the fact that they will inevitably be required to pay more fees for a poorer, leaner, meaner education if they don’t take a stand for UC.

One measure of how important a place or an institution is to us is how willing we are to put ourselves on the line or to suffer some discomfort in the service or defence of that place.  This could be something as small as signing a petition (far more students signed the petition about the ultimately-irrelevant logo than ever did about their skyrocketing fees), attending a meeting, or taking the time to get informed.  It could also entail speaking out in some public forum about the University, joining a picket line, missing a class to register a protest, or e-mailing friends and family.

Some members of our community—those who are often caricatured, but who have done more than any others to put UC’s crisis in the public eye—have organised protests, chained themselves to railings, undertaken hunger strikes, and been beaten, bloodied, arrested, and humiliated for their troubles and for the love they have for our community.

But in general, it is safe to say, by this method of measuring our commitment, our community has been sadly lacking.  We have allowed the pressures of daily life—exams, lectures, the social calendar—to distract us from the fact that we are living in the Indian Summer of an institution which, if we are not careful, will be changed beyond recognition for those who come here in the not-too-distant future.  We have bowed to the conceit that grades, quizzes, and gossip are more worthy of our time and attention than the community which has nurtured, educated, sheltered, and inspired generations of Californians—and which will cease to do so in a recognisable manner if we do not act.

UC’s crisis was made in the arena of state politics, but it is being exacerbated within our system and on our campuses by leadership which has been apathetic and amateurish where not downright destructive and dangerous.  The least we can do at this point is to do what we can to ensure that when the Regents consider Yudof’s replacement, they hear from us about why a repeat of his style, his moral and political framework, and his priorities would be unacceptable to those of us who call the University of California home.

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