Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fiat Lux: Are UC Administrators Finally Seeing the Light?

As regular readers and members of the UC community will know, Berkeley is in the process of transitioning between Chancellors. I have found the tenure of out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau very frustrating for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere,and have been worried about the approach tentatively sketched out by incoming Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. However, in the past week both university officials made some comments which I found interesting and, embryonically, hopeful.

In a meet-and-greet with members of the campus community, Dirks remarked that “the public character of this institution is palpable”. He went on to articulate his own aspiration to make Berkeley “‘even more a symbol” of public mindedness’, and “even more public”. Key to that now-elusive sensibility is the ability to answer in the affirmative to questions like, “Is this research or technology going to advance a better society? Is this kind of knowledge going to contribute to the well-being of our society and or planet?”

He made similarly interesting comments at a forum with students who created written and visual homages to UC Berkeley drawing inspiration from Ansel Adams’ photographs, admitting that “it’s very hard to know what language to use to reconstitute a sense of the public good that is in accord with what we’re doing at this institution...There’s something special about this place, and we have to be able to communicate that”.

In the course of that conversation with students and faculty, Birgeneau admitted that “We’ve focussed so much on the economic benefits to our graduates, I think it’s really backfired on us”. Dirks followed up, saying, “One of the things that we’ve been called upon to do as senior leaders of universities is constantly to instrumentalize the value of a college education...That’s become to a very large extent the way in which the public evaluates the success or failure of institutions of higher education. In a way, by giving in to that, we’ve abdicated what used to be a much more common way of thinking and talking about higher education...We have to find the language to justify the less quantifiable things that we do”.

I very much agree that university leadership, at the campus and system level, has struggled to find good language to discuss the importance of universities’ public character, and at times have seemed impatient with and even dismissive of that importance. It is nice to hear the man partially responsible for fracturing Berkeley’s community and public identity own up to this. It was equally promising to hear Dirks--who comes out of a humanistic and social scientific background--reference the need to resist being drawn into a scenario in which every intellectual endeavour and every academic labour must be justified from a merciless, thankless economic standpoint.

While it is encouraging to hear two high-profile administrators articulate these concerns (and I hope that both of them pass their concerns up the pipeline to UC President Mark Yudof and whomever his successor might be, as well as to the UC Board of Regents), Berkeley and the University of California more broadly are not simply facing a crisis of language. The decision to justify the University in economic terms, and to attempt to quantify its research and pedagogical endeavours has already been felt on campuses, and the practical changes that have come about as a result of that mis-measure of the University need to be treated as a practical as well as a rhetorical problem.

The University is faced by many ills today. The responsibility for funding its labours has been shifted away from the public as a whole (and most conspicuously, away from those generations who benefited from earlier investment in the University and who are in the process of breaking the social contract which mandated that they support future generations in the same way) and onto the backs of students and their families. In seeking to lessen this burden, the University has turned to private donors, and has been partially successful through the provision of generous scholarships.

But in making this turn, the University has put itself into the position of depending on interests which often expect instantaneous and institutionally self-centred gratification, inhibiting that research which takes either a longer view or has no obvious immediate practical value, and adversely impacting the teaching of those subjects which contribute to civic-mindedness rather than an obvious career-path. In the spirit of this new harsher dispensation, administrative support and in some cases whole academic divisions have fallen away.

Now, egged on by the most self-interested and short-termist of all self-interested and short-termist politicians, our current Governor, the University is turning to online education as a curative for its inability to perform its public duty. As appealing as expanding access to higher education through massive online courses might be, there are serious drawbacks to rushing into this scheme, as outlined by a recent letter from San Jose State University faculty, subjects of an early experiment in this form.

I hope that in Birgeneau’s final days, and Dirks’ early ones at Berkeley, campus and system administrators begin to examine the consequences of their actions of the past years, and to set another course for California’s preeminent public institutions, the public character of which has already been badly degraded by a hostile electorate, a structurally dysfunctional state, and, as Birgeneau and Dirks now admit, administrative mismeasurement. They both need to do what they can not only to change UCOP and the State of California’s approach to higher education, but to ensure that this conversation about the importance of our public institutions continues.

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