Sunday, November 3, 2013

Janet Napolitano on the Future of the University of California

Last week, new University of California President Janet Napolitano (until recently running the federal Department of Homeland Security) swept through San Francisco on a part of her “listening tour” of the ten campus system.  Using the Commonwealth Club as the venue, rather than any of the University campuses, Napolitano laid out what the San Francisco Chronicle called her “grand vision” for the state’s preeminent public institution.

“Grand” is a strong word, and the Chronicle must have set the bar particularly low in this case.  Napolitano noted that her “big ideas” would come out when the University’s governing board meets later this month.  But it is hard to see how—given the constraints placed on the University by the serious decline in support from the state over decades—the President of the country’s foremost university system is capable of making any changes which could justifiably be described as “grand” or “big”.
As reported by the Chronicle, Napolitano made some small funding announcements: $15 million split three ways between the state’s “Dreamers” (students who came to or who were brought to California illegally), postdocs, and graduate student recruitment.  Any funding for any component of the University’s activities is welcome.  But in the scheme of a $24 billion budget, Napolitano is talking peanuts, while ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.
If, during her tenure as UC President (which got off to an abysmal start due to the underhanded, un-consultative manner of her appointment by the UC Regents), Napolitano would like to make a serious impact on California’s university system she will have to address some of the bigger problems.
Today, a student at Berkeley should expect to pay around $30,000 per year for tuition, fees, and living expenses.  That’s a $120,000 bill over four years, assuming that student is able to finish in four years, an unrealistic assumption when many students are working full-time jobs while studying to survive from month to month, obligations which significantly degrade their University experience and the effort they are able to put into their courses.  Such a student will emerge from the University heavily in debt to a profiteering student loan industry, into an economic climate in which a degree—even from a prestigious university—is no guarantee of success or employment, and where the safety net that would normally support them as they look to find their footing is increasingly threadbare. 
At the Commonwealth Club she declared her opposition to the privatisation of UC, but it remains to be seen how she will square that opposition with the reality that in most respects UC operates like a private institution.  The University’s funding comes predominantly from private sources, particularly the tuition paid by students and their families.  Support from the state has plummeted, and many administrators at UCOP and on the campuses—to say nothing of the corporate-minded Board of Regents—favour further steps towards privatisation (differential tuition, differentiated teaching, and more freedom to create more exclusionary campus communities). 
Today UC is public in name only, and although the trappings of public-ness are important—keeping the University focussed on its public mission, forcing it to account for the public good, and making it at least think about accessibility—they are not a substitute for a University which has the support of the public it serves.
Absent that public support, the University will grow more dismissive of the state community and its demands and move towards a less service- and more profit-oriented operating structure.  We can see these developments today as the Regents promote a growing cadre of obscenely well-paid administrators whose primary duty often seems to be to shrink the size of the campus communities who do real work.  We can see these developments when the University—pressured by our Governor and pulled by profit-oriented Regents—begins contemplating creating a two-tier system of education through Massive Open Online Courses which have been shown to do a disservice to students.  And we can see them in the high-handed, almost imperial manner in which campus leaders have dealt with student protesters who did not occupy public spaces and classrooms out of a sense of entitlement, but rather because one generation’s divestment from their future is transforming the world into which they will emerge into an increasingly hostile and uncertain place.
The scarring image of black-clad, shielded, helmeted police officers beating students with batons, shooting them with rubber bullets, throwing them to the ground, and pepper spraying them brutally represents the antithesis of what the University should be about, and yet will be the signal legacy of campus Chancellors like Robert Birgeneau and Linda Katehi. 
Napolitano expressed her desire “to be the best advocate possible for what this university and this state can achieve together”.  I’m happy to take her at her word for the moment.
But she will need to quickly find a way to ensure that her actions show that she understands how betrayed California’s students feel: betrayed by the failure of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations to honour the social contract that traditionally binds one generation to those that follows, and of which those older generations were beneficiaries; betrayed by the failure of our state’s political leadership to protect its preeminent public institution; and betrayed by University leadership which for many years has appeared indifferent where not hostile to the falling fortunes of the University community.  She must acknowledge that austerity is not a viable option for an institution committed to the public good.
Napolitano will need to find a way to bring the University of California and the State of California back together in a way that demonstrates the commitment of the latter to the former such that the University is able to do right by the state’s future children (and the same is even more true of California’s pre-K through 12 system).  After all, ensuring that institutions of higher education are able to serve California’s students in a way that helps to create equality and opportunity, is one of the best ways there is of making the state a better, fairer, more equal and successful place. 
In return the University community—faculty, staff, students, anti-cuts groups, unions—needs to recognise that the UC President does not have the power at her disposal to right California’s foundering ship of state—the real cause of the austerity on campus and the pressures students are experiencing.  Pro-active campus groups need to spend a little less time attacking administrators for implementing cuts forced on them by the state, and which would not be off-set by lower administrative salaries (which is not to say that rising administrative salaries are in any way justified), and a little more time pressuring people in Sacramento.
It is, after all, the ostensible allies of labour and anti-cuts groups—the Governor and Democrats in the Senate and Assembly—who put their imprimatur on the devastating austerity which has turned our institutional home into a meaner place over the past decade.  And it is the same set of groups—supposedly committed to the welfare of students and workers—which have put their own political skins ahead of their state’s welfare in refusing to do anything with their supermajorities and refusing to contemplate raising revenue to help the University.  Campus activists do no cause—least of all their own—any favours by failing to critique their supposed allies who have actually failed them as badly as the fundamentalist Republicans.
In other words, the idealism of all those who claim to be committed to UC’s future needs to be more clear-eyed and realistic in its appraisal of the true extent of the problem, and of the extent to which UC’s future is inextricably tied up in the structures and forces which make our state apparently ungovernable except by a punishing and unsustainable drive to austerity. 

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