Monday, November 18, 2013

Jerry Brown Draws Battle Lines with California's Students

Last week was supposed to mark a new beginning for the University of California.  With great pomp, UC Berkeley’s new Chancellor was inaugurated, with speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of the public University and the incalculable worth of the Golden State’s preeminent public institution.  And to great fanfare, new UC President Janet Napolitano went before the UC Regents, promising to ask the state to renew its commitment to UC.  Napolitano also proposed extending the current tuition freeze.
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But on the final day of the Board of Regents’ meeting, and a week before several campus unions prepare to strike in protest of the University’s austerity policy, our gaunt, gimlet-eyed Governor drew on his Schwarzenegger-esque rhetorical powers and proposed to give the UC Regents a “reality sandwich”.
“We are on track”, he declared, “for a gigantic tuition increase, or you’re going to have a big financial crisis”.  With these words, Brown drew up his battle lines in his punitive war on California’s students, their families, and future generations, pledging as he did to fight to keep UC drastically under-funded and unaffordable if it refuses to adopt his preferred monetised, market-based, profiteering, instrumentalist approach to education. 
“I don’t have a Nobel Prize”, Brown said in that modest way he has, according to the San Jose Mercury News, “but I know the political climate in California probably better than anybody else”.    He followed up: “The ‘big bad state’ is not going to bail you out at a rate that is different than what we’re doing now”.
There is very clearly one thing that Jerry Brown does not understand, and that is what a public institution is and how it works.  The Governor’s ignorance and cynicism were on full display when he insulted the University and its community by suggesting that state funding amounts to a “bailout”, as though California's students were so many CEOs, clamouring for golden parachutes.
The University of California, like other public institutions, is given a mandate by state government in the name of the state’s citizenry.  That state government then has the responsibility to provide public institutions with the wherewithal and resources to carry out that mandate.  California has failed for many years now to honour its obligations to the University of California and its students.  A paltry 11% of UC’s funds come from state general funds.  For Brown to claim that him doing his job and funding UC constitutes a “bailout” demonstrates just how far out of the mainstream our current governor operates, with his constant injunctions to people to take responsibility while he refuses to do as much himself. 
If he refuses to do his job and support public institutions, he gives ammunition to those who, whether openly or by stealth, would like to privatise the University of California.  If the state will not fund UC, it will make ex-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s despicable calls for differential tuition across the campuses more palatable.  If the state will not meet its obligations to UC, calls for differential pricing across fields of study will gain traction.  And the people who will suffer from all of this most will be the undergraduate students who, if Birgeneau had his way, would probably pay private-style tuition at Berkeley and UCLA, and would not only have to contemplate going into serious debt to go to college, but would be forced to contend with another level of indebtedness when contemplating the choice of a major.
California has long endured and indulged this governor, who in his earlier tenure eschewed a traditional policy agenda (i.e. one which serves the moral and material welfare of the state’s people) for a policy of “creative inaction” (i.e. one which serves the political welfare of Jerry Brown).  At the time one electoral opponent commented that “creative inaction” amounted to “sitting on your ass”.*  Today, things are no different. 
When running for election in 2010, Brown refused to talk political policy or practise, claiming that “the process is the plan”.  The absence of a process for reinvigorating California’s public sphere makes it dramatically clear that there is no plan.  The Governor promised us that Prop 30 would be a real “fix”, an absurd claim borne out by the fact that he is prepared to countenance forcing a “gigantic tuition increase” on UC, and presumably the California State University. 
Again and again, Jerry Brown has promised voters that salvation is lurking just over the horizon...that if we’re patient, he’ll dazzle us with some incredible solution yanked out of a hat.  In another one of his faux-reflective moments, Brown invoked Aristotle’s poetics, noting that the famous Greek “talks about...three acts: there’s a beginning, there’s a middle and the end...We’re just beginning Act 2...the third act is when it gets good.  The second is when the tension, the protagonist is under tension, the protagonist is under pressure, can he get out of the box he’s in.  That’s always in Act 2.  All right, you wait.  We’re going to get to Act 3 very soon”.
Act 3 has always been just over the horizon for the man who ran for and won his first statewide race in 1970, and has accomplished remarkably little in the intervening years—staying true to his policy of calculated apathy.  But now the end is drawing inexorably nearer.  Brown has a maximum of five years left in office, is in his mid-seventies, and risks antagonising the voters who have long indulged him with his cloying, obfuscating manner.  Moreover, he forgot to tell voters that Act 3 is shaping up to be the culmination of an epic tragedy, wherein one man’s overweening personal ambition and lack of the same for his state, together with his unwillingness to grasp the political nettle and take serious action to rescue our public sphere, leads to the collapse of what remains today the world’s finest university system. 
Political commentators who swooned over Brown in the aftermath of Prop 30’s passage in 2012 described its passage as a personal victory for our embattled Governor.  But they forgot that it wasn’t Brown who made the calls, walked door-to-door, and waved the placards.  Prop 30’s passage relied on the politicisation of a generation of students, who with their families are bearing the cost of decades of divestment by the state from the University. 
In that same election, Democrats won historical supermajorities, propelled to power by the same constituency that voted in large numbers for Prop 30, by the disgust of voters with the scorched earth tactics of Republicans who had long managed to govern the state from the minority, and by the hope that if so empowered, Democrats would use that power to achieve a political breakthrough.  Democrats have refused to use their hard-won supermajority to fund California’s public sphere, and they have refused to address the pressing need for political reform: the absurdity of Prop 13 which means that 35% of the legislature can block taxes and force spending cuts; the disconnect between voter initiatives and the other branches of government; and our overburdened constitution which denies our elected representatives discretion in managing state funds.
The Governor should remember one thing as he performs his calculations about running for re-election next year.  The same people whose efforts put Prop 30 over the line in spite of the dire polls and Californians’ recent tradition of rejecting tax measures can and should sink Brown’s bid for another term as Governor if he pursues his punitive austerity campaign and refuses to address the state’s crisis of governance, democracy, and humanity.  If Californians are going to grant Jerry Brown another act, he needs to find his spine, muster some courage, and spell out what he intends to do for California in his final term and how he intends to do it.  Otherwise, he can leave Sacramento with the same pink slip his failure to govern has forced on so many Californians. 
* In Chuck McFadden, Trailblazer: a Biography of Jerry Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 68.

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