Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Jerry Brown and Higher Education in California

Intuitively, I would unreservedly applaud the triumph of a university’s autonomy over those who would seek to regulate what goes on within its walls.  Normally, when you think of such a conflict, you would be thinking of maintaining an open research agenda, or keeping teaching free from party political influence.  However, when California Governor Jerry Brown backed down from the fight he was picking with University of California Regents and administrators and their California State University counterparts, I had decidedly mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I feel that efforts by a range of parties (of which Brown was just one) to force the University towards the provision of online education is not in the interests of California’s higher education sector and the students it serves.  As faculty and others have pointed out, this could easily turn into a back-door privatisation of higher education. 

In his early budget proposals, Brown had wanted a firm commitment to expanding online coursework, as well as specific commitments on pushing students through in less time, bringing in greater numbers of transfer students, and holding down tuition.  The increase in funds to UC—after many, many years of disinvestment by the state—would have been contingent on the Universities meeting benchmarks in these areas.

I very much disagreed with the stipulations about online coursework, and I think that asking students to finish quickly when many of them are being forced to spend much of their time working to pay for outrageous tuition—which in turn makes it difficult to create a class schedule that allows them to finish on time—is approaching the problem from the wrong way around.

But while it would be a little hypocritical to be too selective about the circumstances in which the state should and should not step into regulate the Universities (though it might be fairly said that Brown’s proposals were typically incoherent and blinkered in their assessment of the problem), I think it would have been very nice to extract a commitment from the UC Regents about not raising tuition for the foreseeable future.

In the end, Brown backed down from all of these demands.  Both University systems made sympathetic noises about not raising tuition in the coming year, but UC left itself plenty of room to manoeuvre, its spokesperson saying, “We are not etching anything in stone...Plans change from year to year”. 

Yesterday, Brown claimed that he “had an agreement from both segments [UC and CSU] that they would carry out online vigorously”, referring to his decision to relax his benchmarks and rely on some kind of gentleman’s agreement.  In a way, this gives the Governor the best of both worlds.  If UC and Cal State decline to follow up, he can flay them by referencing some vague “understanding” he had with them.  And yet his fingerprints are not conspicuous on any particular policy, meaning that there’s not much he can be blamed for if things go pear-shaped (hmmm...remind anyone of Prop 30?).

In truth, the governing bodies of both systems have shown extraordinary enthusiasm for diminishing the accessibility and integrity of their institutions, so I suspect that they agree with Brown’s efforts to denigrate the quality of the education they provide, and that their reluctance to accept his terms stemmed from a desire to preserve their autonomy and the pressure they have received from faculty. 

I’d be interested to know whether the Governor had a similar “agreement” about a commitment to restoring affordability and accessibility as central features of our state’s wonderful university system, which is increasingly out of reach of too many Californians.

The Huffington Post demonstrated the danger of Brown’s method of governing by polls when it reported on a poll which found that “56 percent [of California residents] believe public university tuition is unaffordable in California.  But 46 percent said maintaining excellence was more important than lowering tuition”. 

It’s worth noting that there was no option which asked Californians to contemplate the possibility of maintaining excellence alongside affordability, or even the connection between the two.  Nor did the poll probe the link between the devil’s dilemma it presented to voters as gospel on the one hand, and the deep structural wounds that voters and opportunists like Brown have inflicted on the state over decades, making it quite literally ungovernable over the long term. 

Given the extent to which California’s polity has been broken by careless use of the initiative system, the massive intervention of special interests, and the ongoing construction of a massively-overburdened constitution, you might as well poke at pigeon entrails or try to read the mind of a madman as try to divine Californians’ views about higher education using such absurd polling questions. 

And yet polls like this one drive both politicians’ and the public’s sense of what is possible.  Brown has set himself up as an executor of the “people’s will” rather than a governor who will govern, and this half-witted haruspicy is precisely the “method” of management to which he has committed himself.  Tragically, the choice that such polls lay out is stark.  Either we pursue excellence in research, which many higher education leaders increasingly believe means turning to a privatised if not for-profit structure, or else we sacrifice that excellence to allow the University to pursue its socioeconomic commitment to Californians. 

That is an awful choice.  And it is a false one.  The fortunes of California’s universities are bound up with the welfare of the state itself.  And if we give up on the ability of our foremost institution to carry out its mission—representing excellence in research, providing a fine education, and making itself a place where all Californians feel welcome—that doesn’t say much about the ability of our society to master its challenges in the service of some common good.

The problems that prevent the Universities from carrying out their mission are the very same ones which bedevil the Golden State’s foreseeable future unless we decide to hack at the root of the problem by embracing comprehensive and rational political reform (for a great treatise on the topic, see—you guessed it!—Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It).  Instead of thinking how we can wreck the Universities as expeditiously as possible—and thereby wreck our society—we should be thinking about how we expand the realm of the possible to better plough a progressive path between the fork in the road, which as it exists, has nothing to offer Californians who believe that public institutions can serve the public welfare, and that higher education is a central part of that welfare. 

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