Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rewarding Administrative Malpractice

Berkeley’s Daily Cal reported last week that out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a physics professor, is being awarded the Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics by the American Institute of Physics.  The newspaper quoted Birgeneau as expressing “shock” when he learned of the award, and I can only concur.

By all accounts, the AIP is a very reputable institution, and I am therefore surprised that it would desire to be associated in any capacity with a man responsible for the degredation of the public character of the preeminent campus of the world’s finest university system.  The citation, as documented by the Daily Cal, is not primarily focussed on Birgeneau’s activities as Berkeley’s Chancellor, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that his un-ambitious tenure, which has seen the skyrocketing of fees, attempts to extricate Berkeley from its public obligations, the authoring of articles calling for charging differential tuition, and repeated endorsement of police brutality, should be capped by a leadership award of any variety.

Birgeneau, after all, is the man who referred to protestors as a “health and safety issue” and sent counsellors to speak to them, as though their concerns were a manifestation of some mental disorder.  He is the man who excused police baton charges by describing protestors who were linking arms in a stationary position (in the style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) as “not non-violent”.  He is the man who declined to unify the campus community in the early days of the most recent round of state disinvestment, and chose instead to tell those students and faculty who were deeply worried about the future of the university we call home to mind their own business and leave the lobbying to him. 

 Birgeneau has been active in arguing that Berkeley cut its losses and disengage from the University of California system, leaving less prominent campuses in the lurch to fend for themselves.  He has promoted and in fact written policy papers aimed at allowing Berkeley to subvert its public character. 

In short, he is not an administrator deserving of a leadership award.  He failed to avert the slide towards privatisation at UC Berkeley.  He failed to heal or tend to the wounds his callousness inflicted on the campus community.  He failed to embrace the cause of the public sphere.  And he failed to set an example of constructive leadership at a moment when our state and our university system lacked firm moral hands at the tiller.

In fact, in common with leadership within the UC Regents and at the UC Office of the President, Birgeneau has presided over a growing leadership deficit which has signalled a major loss of legitimacy on the part of university administrators, something unhelpful for our educational system at a time of great crisis. 

We have an incoming Chancellor who faces a moment of both crisis and possibility, and important questions about Berkeley’s future relationship to our state and systemwide community.  Nicholas Dirks, however, has so far appeared as tone-deaf as his predecessors on issues of style and character (issues which matter given UC’s place at the heart of California’s politics).  Dirks has also signalled that he is prepared to concede that Berkeley’s slide in the last several years is irreversible, not the message a hopeful campus was hoping to hear. 

If we are not more demanding of our campus leadership, we will find ourselves dealing with further years or even decades of fallout from the kind of administrative malpractice which has characterised Birgeneau’s rather sorry tenure.

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