Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The University of California and the 'Black Hand': Janet Napolitano, Upton Sinclair, and California's Students

The head of the world’s most prestigious University system was appointed over the summer.  The Regents of the University of California—the board of which constitutes a political patronage machine for the governor—nominated and appointed Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security Secretary in the federal government) within a week, making a mockery of due process and the community which Napolitano is supposed to serve.
Napolitano will preside over a community comprising nearly 19,000 academic staff, 190,000 other staff, and nearly a quarter million students.  None of these people were considered important enough to be worth consulting in a process which was so lacking in transparency that it might have been the envy of Kim Jong-un!
The Board of Regents failed to present the community with the criteria by which they judged candidates.  The Board of Regents failed to disclose the long-list or short-list of candidates from whom they made their final selection.  The Board of Regents failed to include the community in the process, and it failed to allow the community either the time or means to comment in between their announcement of Napolitano and her confirmation.
The University community was outraged, both by the fact that the Board of Regents made not the slightest pretence at a democratic process, and by the fact that Napolitano was active in upping deportations while serving in the federal government, and will be coming to a state which has chosen to take a much more humane approach to immigrants and their children.  Student governments at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine responded by passing votes of no-confidence in Napolitano. 
That Napolitano’s tenure could stink so badly before she’s even done anything is a testimony to the mangled sham of a process by which she was appointed, and the former cabinet secretary and Arizona Governor should have refused to have anything to do with the farce that was her appointment.
The Regents’ obsession with secrecy and their disdain for any kind of open process has weakened Napolitano by making her an essentially illegitimate figure on campuses.  When students at UC Irvine marched in protest of Napolitano earlier today, they were met with a show of force from the campus police which merely drove home the determination of the University of California’s leadership to insulate it from criticism and from the voices of its constituents. 
The New University reported that “only a handful of students from UCI were invited to meet with Napolitano today, including ASUCI President...AGS President, UC Student Regent...and some of the leaders from the Cross Cultural Center’s Umbrella Organizations”.  This is in keeping with the administration’s strategy of using students as props in such meetings, and hand-picking student leaders who already have access to the administration.
Ninety years ago, eleven years before he would run to be the Governor of California, Upton Sinclair published The Goose-Step, an account of higher education in the United States.  Invoking the mafia, Sinclair referred to Berkeley—then dominated by right-wing, imperialist thought; an institution in which the student body was highly-militarised and regressive in its outlook—as the University of the Black Hand.  The Regents, in Sinclair’s words, were the “grand dukes of the plutocracy”, and then ran Berkeley like a “medieval fortress”. 
Today it is on the one hand most conventional to think of the Board of Regents serving the politicians who appoint them.  But Sinclair recognised that the Regents were appointed because of the financial and propaganda services they rendered to the state’s leading political figures.  Today many of the Regents were appointed by Governors whom they backed politically.  The politicians were, in Sinclair’s mind, “nominated by these gentlemen’s newspapers and elected by these gentlemen’s checks”.
Many of the Regents who anointed Napolitano in defiance of the University today are drawn from the profiteering business and financial world of California, a far cry from the civic-minded, communitarian University over which they rule.  Sinclair’s comment about one Regent—that he was “a gentleman whose qualifications to direct the higher education of California were acquired while driving a stage”—ring as true today as they must have nearly a century ago. 
The progressivism and leftism of the city of Berkeley long predates the growth of conscience amongst the University’s students, and in Sinclair’s day, “when the electrical workers went on strike, the mayor of Berkeley smashed the strike with University boys”.  At President Barrows’ urging, students were similarly used to break a seamen’s strike later.  Backed by the Regents, Barrows shut down extension teaching, which sought to broaden those receiving a University of California education beyond the children of the state’s plutocracy. 
Barrows, a practitioner of American imperialism and terrorism in the Philippines, began the militarisation of the University, ensuring that although “twelve thousand students get a free education [they] must pay for it by taking two years of military training”.  Barrows also asserted that “one advantage of having a big university is that you have abundant material from which to select athletic teams”.  Students were bludgeoned into providing financial backing for the support of Memorial Stadium, and “when some of them found that they had not been able to earn money to pay their full subscriptions, they were refused admission to the university; that is, the university refused to accept their registration fees, until the stadium pledges had been paid!”
Members of the UC Regents also dabbled in politics, and the father of H R Haldeman (notorious for his involvement in the scandals of the Nixon administration), one of California’s leading plutocrats, founded the Better America Foundation, which Sinclair described as “a kind of ‘black hand’ society of the rich, a terrorist organization which does not stop short of crime”, working to entrench the interests of the Regents and their associates “for the purpose of keeping California capitalist”.*
It was, then, only comparatively recently that the University of California became associated with progressivism.
Lest we think these bad old days are over, we need only look to the resistance the Board of Regents has mounted to demands that they invest the University’s funds in an ethical manner.  They turned the police on students protesting for divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa, and today simply ignore those arguing that the University’s money should not be associated with Israeli colonialism. 
At a time when the class of which the Regents are amongst the foremost representatives are raking in record profits and lobbying to have their taxes cut, California is increasingly unable to fund its public institutions and the same Regents are driving up the fees of students to crippling levels, ensuring that those students who emerge into the cruel immoral economy created by the Regents and their fellow representatives of the state’s elite will be heavily indebted and vulnerable.
But there is a critical difference today.  In Sinclair’s day, students marched the “goose-step”, cheering on the imperialist Presidents Wheeler (a proponent of German militarism) and Barrows (a practitioner of American terror).  Rather than seeking common cause with the state’s working citizenry, they allowed themselves to be used by the university’s overseers to attack that citizenry.
Today, students are more aware of the relationship between their own economic plight and that of California.  And as their critique of Napolitano illustrates, they are not willing to accept their plight lying down. 
In its early days, the University of California was designed to provide the intellectual fodder for the plutocrats and magnates who ran California behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms.  Today, its administrative offices have become retirement chambers for members of the national security apparatus and its governing board is virtually indistinguishable from a corporate boardroom.  But while previous generations of students were proud to be associated with the most reactionary elements of California’s society, today’s generations are actively repudiating any association between the noble endeavour of education and the dirty work of the state’s elites and the undemocratic outlook they bring to our University.
* Upton Sinclair, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education (New York: AMS Press, 1923): 126-152, 373

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