Thursday, November 7, 2013

Finding the Real Rot at the University of California

"Sir Humphrey: Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position”.

The above quotation comes from the British satirical programme, Yes, Minister.  Sir Humphrey, the entrenched civil servant, runs rings around the elected Minister who operates under the misapprehension that he wields power within the vast bureaucracy of Whitehall.  Sir Humphrey frustrates the politician’s policy ambitions, deftly manages his efforts to assert ministerial independence, and basically runs the department on the sly.
The arrogance of the British civil servant portrayed by Sir Humphrey stems from the length of his service.  He will be operating behind the scenes, pulling strings, long after this minister is gone.  And the next.  And the next.  That lengthy service, in his view and that of his fellow well-entrenched bureaucrats, makes him far better suited to manage the affairs of state than a mere minister.  It is an undemocratic logic, but however unjust we might know it to be there is at least a certain logic to it.
The same cannot be said for the corresponding arrogance of the new breed of bureaucrat at the University of California.  The UC system comprises ten campuses, nearly a quarter million students, tens of thousands of faculty, and over one hundred thousand other employees.  It is a community dedicated to the education of the citizens of our state, and to supporting research by a diverse group of faculty and graduate students who are at the cutting edge of virtually every field imaginable.
And yet, at a time when UC Berkeley is preparing to formally inaugurate its new Chancellor, the University is reeling under twin assaults.  The first is external: massive and systematic divestment by a state long dominated by right-wing economic fundamentalists.  Those fundamentalists have now lost virtually all formal political power, but they appear to have won the argument because the newly-empowered Democratic Party has steadfastly refused to use its political power to restore funding to UC.
The second assault comes from within and is a product of the assault from without.  The assailants are the legions of administrators now working on all ten campuses and at the Office of the President in Oakland.  Their pay-scale puts that of many if not most professors to shame, and they rake in raises at a time when funding for graduate students is on the wane and when undergraduates’ tuition has doubled in under a decade.
In recent years—as UC’s crisis grew more acute, in fact—their ranks have swelled at a far greater rate than those of students, faculty, or the staff in academic departments whose labours actually benefit the community.
And yet the welfare of all of these groups—those who comprise the heart and soul of the University—is expendable.  Our expendability stands in sharp contrast to the untouchability of the cadre of new administrators.  These people believe that they are essential and deserving in a way that would sound outlandish coming even from the most celebrated scientist or accomplished humanist on the University campus.  They and their patrons—the UC Regents, who represent the moral and material campaign debts of Governors past and present—believe that without their presence in the halls of our institution of learning, the University of California would collapse.
That is slightly ironic given that the primary chore of many of these administrators is to sniff out what they call “inefficiency” and what many of us call “academic departments”, or “core classes”, or “departmental advisors”.  They make a living, in other words, from reasoning other people out of work.
And those “other people” are the ones who do the labour traditionally associated with a University.  You know, old-fashioned things like designing and teaching classes, or doing academic research.  Or running libraries and advising students.  Surely you remember the students?  They’re the ones for whom Universities used to be designed.  You wouldn’t know that in the administrative climate slowly being created at the University of California.  At UC, when the state fails to honour its commitments and the University has to make sacrifices, students are the first to feel the pain, followed by the departments least likely to turn out ready-made employees for the financial services and other “essential” industries, after which go the support staff who allow students and faculty to go about their work in a massive, layered institution. 
Guess who is last to feel the pain?  Guess who benefits from the merciless drive towards educational austerity?  Guess who gets to pick the winners and losers?  Guess who gets bonuses?  Why, the Sir Humphreys of California, of course.
But there is a critical difference between the Sir Humphreys of California and the original from Yes, Minister.
In contrast to the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall, the Sir Humphreys of California do not derive their sense of entitlement and their right to wield the chainsaw from their experience or knowledge of the University of California.  Most of them do not draw on any sense of institutional culture, responsibility, or history.  They, in fact, are the cookie-cutter employees on campus.   To them, each institution is the same.  They might as well be working for Bain Capital or Monsanto or HSBC.  They see in two colours: efficiency and inefficiency.  They are administrative “birds of passage”, parachuted in to transform our University into a cold-hearted market.
We know that markets can fail, and that they do terrible things to people if they are managed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.  But however bad things get for those of us who study and work at this University, the new breed of administrators rest assured that they can float away on the balmy California breezes using the same parachutes that brought them here—only on the return flight the parachutes are made of gold.
The history of the University of California might not be as epic as the narratives penned by some of UC’s top historians in Dwinelle Hall on Berkeley’s campus.  But it is in many ways the story of our state.  And I wonder what those who write the history of this institution decades from now will make of the inauguration of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on 8 November 2013. 
Will his tenure mark continuity in terms of UC’s dangerous acquiescence to the mangled priorities and immoral logic of the new breed of administrators who, misguidedly introduced to track down the disease plaguing UC, have performed a gross misdiagnosis and have themselves introduced rot into our University?
Or might it—thanks to the efforts of students, faculty, and staff, and perhaps those academic administrators who recall that a University is best measured by the welfare of its community rather than its ability to squeeze every last ounce of labour out of that community while reinvesting as little as possible in the University’s humanity—mark a reorientation towards a re-foundation of our University as an institution of research and inquiry which honours its commitment to California and is, in turn, provided for by that state’s citizenry?

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