Friday, April 12, 2013

Did $15,000 Tuition Save Berkeley? Birgeneau Thinks So.

On Thursday evening, I went to a talk by Charles Ferguson, director of two well-regarded documentaries—The Inside Job (on the financial crisis) and No End in Sight (on the war on Iraq).  I might post later about some of his comments.  But what struck me most powerfully was an aside he made in reference to the University of California.

Ferguson sits on the board of UC Berkeley’s International House, a position he shares with out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.  Ferguson related how on one occasion Birgeneau earnestly explained to him that the spectacular fee increases Berkeley and other UC campuses have seen over the past several years (I entered the University of California in 2004, and fees have doubled in the years since) have actually saved the University.  Yes, the piling of debt onto students, the commodification of education, and the erection of barriers to entry for those from working and middle class backgrounds, in Birgeneau’s universe, has saved the University he is charged with defending.

Birgeneau’s logic—I’ll be charitable and call it ‘logic’—goes something like this.  If he, the other campus Chancellors, and UC President Mark Yudof hadn’t colluded with the UC Regents to raise tuition to $15,000, they wouldn’t have been able to raise the scholarship money to pay for the education of poorer students who would have been otherwise priced out by a tuition bill of $15,000.  Wrap your mind around that.

Their logic is based on the assumption that raising tuition was, in the first place, a good thing, or else a foregone conclusion.  Now to be fair, these amateur advocates who have done exactly nothing to arrest the decline of their institutions, have little control over state funding, which has been falling for years as Californians ill-advisedly disinvested from their most outstanding and world-renown institutions.  But to turn around and to try to save face by claiming that it is more just and more solvent to develop a confused and inequitable system of high fees for some students and scholarships for others, while retaining a price-tag that cannot but deter students who are from poor backgrounds or who are the first in their families to attend college, is disingenuous and manipulative.

Call me corny or crazy, but as someone who loves this University and the system of which it is part, and who has been given countless opportunities by the values underpinning it, I think that the University of California belongs to the people of California.  That is, after all, what it means for a university to be public.  I do not believe that Californians should have to pay what is equivalent to two-thirds of per capita income in a place like Shasta County to do so. 

Think about what public healthcare means for those countries which have such a system.  It means that all people pay a range of taxes to central public institutions, which then provide healthcare at no cost at the point of need.

Think about what public K-12 education in the U.S. looks like.  Members of the public pay taxes which are then used to build and maintain schools and facilities; pay teachers, administrators, and staff; provide textbooks and course materials; and develop curriculum.  Neither children nor their families then have to pay directly for school attendance.  All members of the public help to pay for schools for several reasons.  For one thing, most of us once attended school for free because earlier generations paid our way.  For another thing, we all benefit from creating educated, well-rounded citizens.  The same is true of the University, and it was once the case that our public paid to run that University, which would then admit as many students as it could who were qualified to attend and interested in doing so. 

It’s a basic social contract based on a basic idea about the importance of public institutions and about the relationship between individuals in a society who will never lay eyes on one another but can see that there is some good in helping one another.

Now, one generation is tearing up that social contract.  One political party has transformed itself into a band of economic fundamentalists, waging guerrilla warfare from within the system on behalf of their paymasters amongst the most wealthy and least responsible industries.  The other political party is running scared and is itself in the process of being co-opted by those same interests.  Our public has forgotten what it means to take ownership of our institutions, and we are allowing ourselves to be persuaded—by the same interests which have granted corporations rights even as they strip the rights of human beings away—that we cannot afford schools or universities or libraries or parks or any of the other things which empower individuals and strengthen the sinews of what has hitherto been a citizen-based society.

It is common to talk about a ‘democratic transition’.  Normally, this refers to countries which are moving towards a more democratic system.  In the U.S., we are gradually transitioning away from democracy.  The abandonment of our public institutions, and their transformation into grubby little marketplaces which exploit the public for private profits is the first step in the pitiful story we are writing for ourselves. 

At a time when our country is looking at a shortage of skilled labour such that it is turning abroad, when media moguls who hobnob with robber barons manipulate our public with increasing ease because of basic ignorance and the inability to think critically, when we are faced by climatic, economic and global troubles, and when massive inequality threatens to swamp our polity, disinvesting from education seems like a particularly bad idea.

And yet none other than the Chancellor of our country’s best public institution of higher learning has, in his final months of service to Berkeley, endorsed a chain of logic which says that disinvestment and privatization of our University is not only a good thing, but has actually saved Berkeley.  Birgeneau’s replacement, Nicholas Dirks, has said nothing to suggest that he will take a more inspired approach to leading our campus, or that his service at Berkeley will be anything other than the logical next career step.

We clearly need to look beyond California Hall for leadership in defending our state’s higher education sector. 

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