Saturday, July 20, 2013

UC's Bad Dream

On Thursday, the University of California’s Board of Regents confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as the next President of the UC system.  She will make $570,000 per year as a base salary, $370,000 more than she made heading one of the top cabinet positions in the federal government.  She will make this money at a time when students pay double the tuition they did less than a decade ago, when courses have been slashed, retiring faculty go un-replaced, and UC administrators talk endlessly of the financial pressures to which the University is subjected.

A salary of that size is a slap in the face to students and to the public (no less than when Cal State raised its presidents’ salaries, or when Berkeley gave its new Chancellor a raise).

These days, the administration at the University of California seems like either a bad dream or a bad joke.  I have hopes that years down the road I’ll be able to run into a University of California student and play the “When I was your age...” card, reminiscing about UC’s travails of today as though they were a bad dream.

After all, if I look at the signatures on my UC diplomas, they read like some kind of rogue’s gallery.  My BA diploma was signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I hope that someday Californians will look back and shake their heads in wonderment that he’d been elected governor of the state.  But it only gets worse from there. 

Another bears the signature of Jerry Brown.  Though representing a party that typically supports public higher education, Brown has hurt UC even more than Schwarzenegger.  He made an example of the University with a series of punishing cuts to persuade the state to raise taxes.  And then when the state raised taxes, tuition didn’t fall. 

Alongside Brown’s signature is that of Mark Yudof, the UC President who compared running UC to managing a cemetery.  His compensation package runs to north of three quarters of a million dollars, and he’ll be remembered for his argument that we need to expand the number of administrators, and that they need to be paid more than the federal government pays Senators and Cabinet secretaries. 

And for those high salaries, this cabal of administrators set about wrecking the Universities: raising fees, slashing courses, searching out what from their corporate perspective looks like waste but which from an educational perspective might very well be essential.  Their general project has been to try to turn a place of learning and discovery into a grubby little marketplace that is more interested in pushing students on through than in treating them like human beings with aspirations and dreams.  

And then there is the Chancellor’s signature.  When students protested tuition hikes, instead of standing with them or taking their case to Sacramento, Robert Birgeneau set the police on them.  I remember very vividly standing in front of Wheeler Hall in the driving rain, fire alarms keening and helicopters thumping the air overhead, and seeing assembled students—some of them my students—being shot by rubber bullets and beaten by truncheons.  At UC Davis, they pepper sprayed students who were sitting peacefully on the ground.  Their Chancellor, who ordered the police into action, had been called one of the “Tom Cruises of the academic world” by Mark Yudof. 

Birgeneau called protesters a “health and safety issue”, and sent a shrink to talk them out of their protest, instead of taking their concerns seriously.  On another occasion he used the fact that he was in Asia as a part of his privatisation campaign (because we all know that there’s no e-mail in Asia) as an excuse for not for not knowing what the police were doing to students.  When he was brought up to speed he said that students—who were linking arms peacefully in emulation of Dr King’s civil rights strategies—were “not non-violent”. 

Berkeley has a history of activism, derided by the notorious anti-social Ronald Reagan in his campaign for governor.  In the 1980s, when Reagan was vetoing bipartisan anti-apartheid legislation (legislation which was eventually passed over his veto), Berkeley students were calling on the UC Regents to divest from the apartheid regime.  When students in 2013 sought to emulate that example by asking the Regents to divest from companies that make money from colonialism in Israel (it was not, as portrayed in the media or by the Israeli lobby, “divestment from Israel”), Birgeneau chastised them. 

As someone who has been lucky enough to call multiple UC campuses home, I’ve always thought that one of the great things about it was that it operated as a system, in cooperation instead of competition.  In fact one of the reasons the Master Plan was passed by an earlier Governor Brown was to stop the infighting between the different campuses and systems (as documented in Ethan Rarick’s fascinating book California Rising: the Life and Times of Pat Brown).  But Birgeneau and UCLA’s Chancellor tried to break their campuses apart and leave the rest of the system in the lurch.  Talk about good community values!

But assuming I finish up at UC in a timely fashion, the next bunch of signatures will get even weirder.  The Governor will still be Jerry Brown—he just won’t go away—but the President by that time will be Janet Napolitano.  Imagine how strange—I hope!—it will seem to succeeding generations that the Secretary of Homeland Security for an administration which is already notorious for trashing civil and human rights on a scale perhaps worse than George W Bush’s, is seen as the best choice to head a public university. 

To add insult to injury, the Board of Regents chose Napolitano without even consulting the UC community.  It is unacceptable that the head of a public institution should be selected behind closed doors by a Board of Regents who are themselves appointed by Governors after giving lots of donations to said governors, and that the appointment should be confirmed without the nominee having to go before the University and State communities.  It is equally unacceptable that the Board itself acts as a patronage network and consists of big corporate types who are clearly unrepresentative in their outlook and morals of Californians at large. 

I hope that someday Californians will look at the experience of their University during these tumultuous decades as though it was a bad dream.  But for this to happen, things have to change in the ten-campus system.  California has to wake up and reinvest in its most important public institution.  We’ll have to find administrators who are motivated by something other than a salary bigger than that of the President of the United States, and who think that fairness and equality rather than the free market should govern our University. 

It will also require that students, faculty, staff, and the public exercise some scrutiny over their University’s leadership.  We were denied that right during the search process for Yudof’s replacement, a process which was conducted with all the openness, transparency, and public character of a Stasi investigation. 

But I was pleased to see that at her confirmation hearing, Napolitano was given a proper UC welcome as the community questioned her track record on immigration rights issues, lack of familiarity with the university and absence of experience in higher education.  I hope she knows that her every move will be subject to scrutiny, and that any decision she makes which damages UC’s community will be met with criticism and opposition.  Her tenure already lacks legitimacy because of the manner in which the Regents flouted faculty, students, staff, and California’s public in appointing her.

But that doesn’t have to be our future.

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