Sunday, August 11, 2013

Another Slap in the Face from the UC Regents

Once again, thanks to its administrative venality, the University of California is in the news.  The new Chancellor at the University of California at Riverside will be compensated to the tune of $354,000.  According to the Los Angeles Times, this represents a 9% increase over her predecessor.  Kim Wilcox’ approval by the UC Regents, and their decision to award him such a hefty pay package (which pales in comparison to remuneration to the likes of UC Berkeley’s Chancellor) comes on the heels of their selection of Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security Secretary) as the new President of the University of California. 

And like their closed-door decision about the new President, and their decision to pay her $570,000 (nearly triple her salary running one of the most powerful federal departments), this latest move by the patronage-based governing board demonstrates the extent to which it is out of touch with economic conditions in the state, the basic social contract with should operate in the public sphere, and the mood on campuses, where students are paying obscenely high tuition and are faced with the prospect of crippling debt when they leave the University to step into inclement economic weather.

Most of the members of the UC Regents came late in life to their public service role—which they’ve creatively managed to turn into a public disservice—from the private sector.  There is nothing inherently immoral about the private sector, but in its concern to generate profits, and at the scale at which most of these people operated, it is an environment which condones practices which are not acceptable in the public sector.

The Regents seem to operate under the assumption that in order to get people to do good work, they have to be bribed with massive pay checks.  They seem unable to understand that people who work in the public education sector might be motivated by something other than a desire for an executive-style income.  This says more about their own worldviews and mentalities than anything else, and their belief in high pay as an incentive only extends to those who share their managerial background, because they have shown little interest in reversing the debt being forced onto students, or the cuts made to academic divisions. 

The Governor and the Lieutenant Governor were highly critical of the Regents’ decision to award these pay packages (as the Governor was of Napolitano’s salary, and that of CSU Presidents), and voted against them.  Brown expressed dismay that the Regents continuously look outside of the university system and the state (Wilcox comes from Michigan State) for high-flying administrators instead of creating a (more affordable) pathway to promotion within the system.

It's not often that I agree with Brown, but the last decade's obsession at UC and CSU with hiring high-flying technocrats for obscene salaries has clearly not worked for the University. Tuition is up, trust is down; the ranks of top administrators are expanding even as access for Californians contracts; crude measurements of short-term educational value are in, while concern for equality and justice are out.  The marketplace model is diminishing institutions of higher education and transforming them into more exclusive spaces.  This model has been embraced enthusiastically by administrators, but its embrace was only possible because of the state’s decision—itself partly forced by the undemocratic logic of minority rule long-enshrined in Sacramento thanks to Prop 13—to disinvest from higher education.

The University of California currently struggles to find its way in an environment characterised by a decade and more of disinvestment, but also shaped in part by the possibility that the public might re-think this disinvestment.  Prop 30, while purely a cosmetic, short-term measure, did demonstrate that people do understand that something is amiss.  This means that the University and its defenders have to work hard to persuade the public—now that we have its attention—to take care of their preeminent institution.

In this context, cutting administrative salaries might not offset shrinking public support, as some campus activists have chosen to claim.  But making those cuts by way of sorting out Universities' priorities is certainly a prerequisite for persuading the public to reinvest.  That public will not be sympathetic to an institution which demonstrates with infuriating regularity that attracting a succession of administrators who fail upwards is more important than looking after students and academic departments.  Nor will they have time for a governing board which looks after those of its own social strata so well at a time when many Californians are struggling.

In opposing the Regents’ irresponsible decision to award Wilcox a $354,000 compensation package, Governor Brown described how “the growth in inequality in California, the U.S. and the world in general [is] a problem that is tearing apart the social fabric”.

That’s a bit rich coming from a governor who ran on a platform of punitive, punishing austerity which for two years targeted the youngest, poorest, weakest, and most vulnerable in California’s society by way of making a political point.

But his hypocrisy aside, the Governor is right to express outrage that a public university system—once known for its commitment to promoting equality and access—should be contributing to such a dangerous trend.  The UC Regents might live in an alternative universe.  But the students, faculty, and staff who comprise their constituency live in this one, and have to deal with the consequences of the Regents’ poor decisions.  We—and the public in whose trust they manage the University—should make it clear to them that their actions are unacceptable. 

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