Monday, July 15, 2013

We Need More than Optimism and Op-Eds from UC Leadership

Writing in the LA Times last Friday, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks outlined his view that “higher education is both a private and a public good”.  Harking back to the Master Plan for Higher Education, Dirks cited a study which “found that states get back about $7 for every $1 they invest in higher education”, simultaneously acknowledging that “not all of the public benefits derived from a well-educated population can be so quantified”.  He made the case that education is valuable to society at large, and not merely those people being educated at a given time at our universities. 

Dirks praised Assembly Speaker John Pérez for his scholarship plan (a plan which, though generous on the surface, helps to undermine the public character of the University of California).  Playing to the gallery, he also commended voters for passing Prop 30—the measure which prevented UC from suffering further cuts (although it did nothing for tuition relief). 

The Chancellor concluded, “After years of financial challenges that have frayed the ties that bind us together, it is cause for celebration to see voters, legislators and university administrators united again in support of the promise of the Master Plan and a shared commitment to higher education.  While more will be required of us all to ensure that our public colleges and universities rest on sustainable financial foundations, the renewed recognition of our deeply shared interests in the widest possible access to higher education gives me real hope for our collective future”.

Those are heartening words, and although Dirks never explained his belief in education as a “private good”, he’s speaking a language that has been notably absent in recent years, both from California Hall and from UCOP’s Oakland offices.

The trouble is that just a couple of weeks ago, a Sacramento Bee editorial invoked the Master Plan in a very different way, suggesting that UC’s public character is now being called quite abruptly into question by new developments.  Because however sincere Dirks might be, it seems that his out-going boss, UC President Mark Yudof, stole a march.

Never a good friend to students on UC campuses, and openly contemptuous of his constituents, Yudof is using his final months (he’ll be replaced in the autumn by Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano) to give “approval for the UCLA Anderson School of Management’s flagship MBA program to move from a state-supported funding model to a self-supported one, where student tuition would cover the entire cost of the program”. 

The Bee argued that the privatisation of the Business School “marks another step down the path of what former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau described as UC’s transformation from a ‘state-supported’ to a ‘state-located’ university”.  The Bee rightly scolds Yudof for sending “mixed messages to students, families and faculty.  On the one hand, university officials complain about inadequate support from the public and Legislature [a very well-founded complaint].  Yet right after state leaders and taxpayers have stepped up to increase that support, the university allows another professional program to separate itself from the state, using the shaky excuse of state support to justify such shifts”.

Yudof and Birgeneau embodied the ugliest of UC’s response to state disinvestment.  Instead of focussing their energies on persuading the public and legislators to increase funding for the University, the system’s president and the oldest campus’ chancellor worked to undermine UC’s public character.  Yudof drove up tuition, drove out Californians, and began the process of privatisation-by-stealth.  Birgeneau actively sought the break-up of UC, trying to get Berkeley to go its own way, advocating that the campus charge higher tuition and look elsewhere for funds, simultaneously shedding its obligations to the state (this approach was spiritedly refuted by UC’s own CFO). 

The Bee made the important point that “taxpayer dollars helped build institutions such as the Anderson school.  Continued public support helps ensure the school remains focussed on service to California, as opposed to service to alumni and corporations that contribute to the school”.

And as the education of our state’s students—under the likes of Yudof and Birgeneau—becomes more instrumentalised, less humane, more market-oriented, and less service-minded, the same worries that circulate around the privatisation of the business school should apply to all aspects of the University. 

The public and its representatives certainly have an obligation to fund its institutions properly.  In the past decades we have failed miserably in executing this obligation, with sad results.  In real terms, however much the Governor, legislators, and university administrators might herald Prop 30 as the salvation of higher education, it is actually a very big part of this failure, because so long as UC funding is granted on a wildly fluctuating, initiative-to-initiative basis, the University’s leadership will have a good excuse for pushing privatisation. 

But UC’s leaders—new leaders like Nicholas Dirks and Janet Napolitano—also have an obligation to accompany their op-eds and public pronouncements with real commitments and serious campaigns to uphold their end of the bargain. 

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