Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Can Napolitano be an Effective UC President?

As most people will be aware, after closed-door deliberations and a process that was a travesty of transparency, the Board of Regents of the University of California named Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to be the next President of the UC system. 

Most of the debate within UC’s community—a debate which should have been allowed to influence the Regents’ decision—has been about Napolitano’s role in the Obama administration’s deportation policy on the one hand, and the irresponsible and unaccountable manner of her nomination and confirmation on the other.

But this week the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Napolitano’s record as governor of Arizona, which strikes me as being a record more indicative of her approach to higher education than her service as Homeland Security Secretary.  The paper reported that as Governor, Napolitano “secured a $1-billion bond to build new facilities for the state’s universities, signed a law that boosted state contributions to financial aid and approved a special fund to retain professors—all with a Republican-controlled Legislature”. 

The Times quoted Napolitano herself as referring to her “[fight] to keep tuition for students as low as possible, while helping to create a new medical school in downtown Phoenix, a new research organization to foster university [research and development] and loan-forgiveness programs for high-demand fields of study”.

The paper focuses on Napolitano’s ability to negotiate with Republican legislators and the leaders of competing universities, and on the tuition freeze she persuaded the legislature to enact. 

However, it is not clear that any of these achievements are readily transferable into a Californian context, in which Napolitano will not be the state’s chief executive, but rather the head of a university system, subject not only to the whims of a notoriously whimsical Governor and the legislature, but to the approval of a Board of Regents which has repeatedly proven its willingness to work at cross-purposes to what ought to be the interests of a public University.

In time, UC’s leadership turned to privatisation, but although part of that turn was driven by a genuinely-held market mentality on the part of administrators, it was also at least partially-forced by the steady disinvestment by the state.  This was the point that the early round of protesters on UC campuses missed: that even if Yudof and Birgeneau had been the best-intentioned of people, handed over three-quarters of their salaries, and forsaken their vehicle and housing allowances, students would probably be paying the same high tuition and UC would be equally pressed for resources.

Because at the end of the day, if we are seriously opposed to privatisation, we have to understand that UC leadership has limited freedom of movement.  Absent a recommitment to public higher education by the state of California—and last November’s Prop 30 was nothing more than a band-aid—there is little Napolitano could do in terms of setting policy that would help the University in a big way.

She will face in Jerry Brown a Governor who has always been comparatively hostile to public investment, and who has made brutal cuts to public institutions to prove his commitment to thrift.  She will have to deal with Democrats who, having got a taste of power  by winning a supermajority in November, don’t appear inclined to do anything  with that power...lest they lose it again!  

In other words, there is no policy decision that I can imagine the UC President being able to make that would come anywhere close to hauling the University out of the morass into which it has been plunged by state neglect and internal sabotage.  But what we need to know—and what the University community should have been able to ask Napolitano and other candidates before a choice was made—is whether her experiences leave her with any ideas about how to persuade the state to reinvest, because the real test of her abilities will be as UC’s top spokesperson and lobbyist.

How will she lobby the state?  How will she leverage UC’s community and alumni in making the case for UC?  Will she focus her lobbying efforts on sympathetic but fearful Democrats, or extend them to the rabid, fundamentalist Republican legislators as well?  When lobbying UC, what will her priorities be?  Will she appeal primarily for the need for more research funding?  Or will she actually make an effort to persuade the Governor and legislature that tuition needs to fall? 

Might she even acknowledge the role of California’s democratic deficit—which stems from its mangled, unworkable political structure—in the unmaking of the University, and invest UC in the fraught but necessary process of political reform?  (If Napolitano hasn’t read it already, I recommend Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It). 

Napolitano should be wary of easy fixes.  The value of the Governor’s pet panacea, online education, has been called into question.  Prop 30 represents a tired effort to kick the can down the road.  Targeted loan forgiveness of the sort that Napolitano managed in Arizona is not the same as tuition relief, and by tying degrees, and by extension research, to market forces, it will devalue those disciplines which do not offer the kind of instant gratification and immediate returns demanded by the education market being built by irresponsible administrators in conjunction with the corporate world. 

For years, the UC Regents have failed abjectly when it comes to protecting the institution they are charged with managing.  Their top administrators have advocated like so many amateurs in public, while working behind the scenes to turn UC into a grubby little market-oriented institution, slowly abandoning its public responsibilities.  The UC community deserved to hear from Napolitano and the other candidates.  Those candidates should have been forced to articulate not only their vision of UC—preferably a vision grounded in the material conditions and moral economy that they would like to obtain within the system, rather than empty homilies—but also their strategy for realising that vision.  They should have had to defend both their views and the process they envision embarking upon, and they should have made this defence in front of their constituents: students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, and the state’s public.

Because the Regents failed to permit such a conversation to take place, it is all the more imperative that Napolitano quickly clarify how she intends to spend the coming years at UCOP.  Otherwise, thanks to the bad-faith and bad-practise of her predecessor, and the corrupt process by which she was appointed, her tenure is in danger of being spoiled by its own illegitimacy before she even formally takes over.

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