Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Robert Birgeneau Fails Upwards

Who would have guessed that the path to prominence and high regard in the field of higher education could involve trashing the values, dividing the community, and undermining the integrity of the world’s finest higher education system?

Out-going UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is taking this less-travelled road.  Only recently, the American Institute of Physics awarded Birgeneau the Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics.  Now, the Daily Californian reports that Birgeneau has been asked to “lead a national initiative to study and support public universities”.  The initiative in question is the Lincoln Project, launched by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Regular readers will be familiar with my complaints about Birgeneau: his response to state disinvestment was characterised by acquiescence to creeping privatisation; his response to other members of our community who tried to speak out about the problem was unconstructive; his repeated endorsement of police violence split the campus community at a time when we needed unity; his calls for a divided, market-driven University of California system in which the burden remained squarely on the shoulders of students rather than the public were offensive to all those who appreciate the value of a unified system and the shared community of interests and ambitions such a community creates.  In short, Birgeneau exemplifies how not to lead a public institution of higher education at a time of crisis.

Birgeneau’s approach to the crisis of California’s universities in the face of state disinvestment is to concede the argument and to reconfigure funding, utterly transforming (and not for the better) the relationship between the University, its students, and Californians.  “I believe that state public education is too important to be left to the state”, Birgeneau said to the Daily Cal, which cited his Middle Class Access Plan as evidence of his commitment to public education.

Now some might say that Birgeneau was simply making the best of a bad situation in attempting to make the process of de facto privatisation gentler (because what else can we call the process of transferring responsibility for the university’s funding from California’s taxpayers to students and their families?).  But if his tenure as Chancellor is anything to go by, Birgeneau isn’t interested in protecting public higher education.  He’s interested in managing public access to what we might call, to adopt the Orwellian language of the managerial caste which speaks with an increasingly assertive voice on our campuses, post-public (to prevent the discomfort associated with the other p-word) universities in the way least calculated to stir outrage amongst said public should they realise that something which once belonged to them has been mismanaged and mutilated.  Now that disfigurement, to be fair, occurred in large measure because of the public’s own negligence, and that negligence was due to a combination of general apathy and to the actions of specific, ideologically-motivated interests. 

California has grown increasingly anti-communitarian, its citizens taking less and less account of how their actions affect their neighbours, whether those neighbours are right next door or at the other end of the state.  We are less and less attached to the idea that we share a responsibility to look after one another and to create institutions which will serve successive generations of Californians well.  And for many years we were victims of the Republican Party’s California Strategy, which involved using the power unfairly conferred on them by the state’s undemocratic supermajority rules to sabotage government and undermine trust in collective, public institutions, and then run campaigns based on the fact that the government they’d just sabotaged wasn’t performing very effectively. 

Democrats, long sympathetic to the University, now have supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate.  However, thus far the situation has not improved.  Berkeley is getting a new Chancellor who is resigned to the changed relation of the University to the state.  Disinvestment has been temporarily checked, but there is no talk of increasing funding and reducing the tuition burden.  And the Governor is making demands of the University which, this cynic thinks, have less to do with a coherent view of the University of California and its mission to the public than with political expediency and a desire to cut costs.  Jerry Brown would have greater legitimacy in trying to tell the University of California how to perform its teaching and research duties if he brought state funding back to a level that made California a seriously committed partner in our higher education sphere. 

Only the Chancellor himself really knows if he is personally committed to public higher education.  The evidence I’ve seen suggests otherwise, but irrespective of his intentions, he has repeatedly sent the message that institutions like Berkeley can no longer afford to be public, and that he is interested in taking us to that post-public world, charging higher tuition, offering more marketable degrees, degrading the breadth of the education offered at Berkeley, and happily leaving the rest of the system in the lurch.

For these reasons, he is not fit to serve as an advocate for higher education in California.  At least not for the version of higher education that most members of the University community hold dear.

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