The University of California has been facing disinvestment from the state of California for many years. Tuition, long on the rise, began spiralling dramatically upwards five or six years ago, and since then the campus community has been conflicted about how to respond to the attack on its ability to perform its mission.
This confusion has been compounded by the fact that the people responsible for ensuring the well-being of students and the health of the University—the system President and the campus Chancellors—have often seemed to be working at cross-purposes with their constituencies comprised of students, faculty, and staff. Former UC President Mark Yudof was openly contemptuous of those who argued that tuition increases were unsustainable and indefensible. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was notoriously tone-deaf in responding to the frustration on his campus, and earned the rightful ire of the campus when he turned the police—armed with batons and rubber bullets—loose on students, turning Berkeley into a dystopian landscape. Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi was similarly pilloried after her campus’ police force pepper-sprayed seated students who posed no discernible threat to law or order.
During these years, the academic community and the staff who support that community has been separated from high-flying managers who take home six figure salaries and bonuses at a time when students pay soaring tuition.
So although the people responsible for the divestment which led to the campus crises reside in the Capitol in Sacramento, it is perhaps understandable that some UC students reacted to the appointment of former Arizona Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano by calling for her dismissal. Napolitano earned the ire of some students by managing President Obama’s deportation program, and the indignation of others on campus through the underhanded, unconsultative, and undemocratic manner in which she was appointed.
But it is hard to imagine—months later—that the Regents would suddenly cave into pressure and fire Napolitano, the move backed by student activist groups and seemingly endorsed by the graduate students’ union. Nor is it clear what such a turn of events—unlikely as it is—would accomplish. Napolitano is probably as powerful an advocate as UC could hope for, and I assume that she is basically sympathetic to the ambitions of students and faculty to return UC to a more stable and public footing. I am not convinced that an academic would make a better University president given the nature of the challenges UC faces.
But irrespective of who occupies the presidency, the UC Regents call the shots within the financial constraints imposed upon them by state government. Therefore, targeting the UC President does not make sense, wastes time, and draws attention away from the real culprits. Of the three tiers of powerbrokers who control the fate of UC (leaving California’s voters out of the equation), the UC President is both the least influential and the most sympathetic to students.
Katie Fox-Hodess, writing in Jacobin, recently mounted a defence of students’ and workers’ decision to target the administration rather than the state. She described how “the administration’s line has always been that the students should join them in pushing for more funding from the state house in Sacramento; in lieu of higher levels of funding, however, difficult decisions would have to be made by administrators—and accepted by students and workers—on the campuses”.
“Students and workers”, she went on, “while pressing for increased funding from the state, have always maintained that in the absence of higher levels of funding, administrators must prioritise maintaining access and equity at the University for low-income students, students of color, and campus workers. Despite the budget crisis and the supposed need for austerity”, administrators’ numbers and salaries have ballooned.
While Fox-Hodess’ criticism of the way in which “statewide and campus governing bodies of the public university systems have become heavily stacked with business and finance leaders” ignores the fact that the Regents have always been corporate in character and ambivalent about the public nature of the University (see Upton Sinclair’s The Goose-Step for an early example), the basic criticism of the administration is fair and accurate.
But when she writes that “the crisis at the California universities, therefore, has been as much a crisis of administrative priorities as it has been a crisis of the state budget”, I believe that she and those who share that view are making a grave mistake. There have certainly been two crises, but without the state-level crisis, the campus crisis would not have occurred. State divestment presented the corporate-minded Regents with an opportunity to re-make UC. And critics of austerity on UC campuses have focussed almost exclusively on the campus crises.
Student groups and workers have talked in passing about the need for the state to fund UC at higher levels, but all of their grassroots efforts and all of their rhetoric has been aimed at taking scalps from the campus and system administration. “Chop from the Top”, an early slogan, simply reinforced the wrong-headed idea that austerity could solve UC’s problems, as long as it was aimed at the right sector of campus. Activists launched scathing attacks on students who, in the Spring of 2010, chose to join a march on Sacramento rather than one on campus. The 20 November strike of this year gained impetus from a graduate-student authored report which made much of the extent to which cuts to administrative salaries could help graduate students to make gains—ignoring the fact that such returns are peanuts when compared to the level of state divestment over the decades, or to the burden facing undergraduate students.
What would happen if—by some miracle, given that they are dealing with highly-undemocratic bodies which have no incentive to listen to them—students and workers ousted Napolitano and forced the Regents to appoint the candidate of their choice to the UC presidency? Even if all the administrators who constitute the real rot at UC were cleared out, salaries were reduced substantially, and University officials made the welfare of students and workers their top priority, UC would be only marginally better off than today.
And critically, that marginal improvement would be temporary given the steady and currently uncontested movement of state politics away from the funding of public institutions. Republicans’ hostility towards public institutions is well known. But the GOP’s decades of minority rule in California was also critical in disciplining Democrats, who are now afraid to use their supermajorities to advance progressive causes. The other major obstacle is California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, who recently drew up battle lines with California’s students when he threatened them with the inevitability of higher fees, while warning Democrats off tax increases.
So if the best case scenario for concentrating efforts on ousting Napolitano is deferred disaster, and if you have the state’s top politician openly threatening the future of the University, why focus your effort on the person who at least appears to understand the value of public higher education, and who defended that value against Brown in the Regents meeting? Why deliberately choose the strategy which will yield such poor outcomes? I can understand the temptation to lash out at those on campus who have exacerbated UC’s dire situation, but it is important that the coalition seeking to defend public higher education does not mistake the pleasure they might derive from attacking Napolitano for actual progress towards their goal.
Fox-Hodess and many students would like to believe that student protests have led to significant victories for the University in California. While students and workers were critical in putting the funding of higher education back on the state agenda, to suggest that they were behind the victory of Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 at the polls in 2012 (and that Prop 30 represented a real victory for the University) is to badly misunderstand the role students are playing in state politics.
Students are being used by Jerry Brown, who is a roadblock to reforming the broken political system which is the primary cause of UC’s decline. Like Ronald Reagan before him, Brown is in a commanding position to dishonestly portray himself to the voters as a Governor capable of disciplining an unruly University community. Brown has routinely castigated the Regents as out-of-touch, administrators as gluttonous, workers as unrealistic, students as impractical, and faculty as ossified. Prop 30 was a limited and temporary bone tossed to the University, and one which will actually undermine future claims on voters’ attention given that it was sold to them as a comprehensive “fix”.
Moreover, Prop 30 was designed to give the appearance of balancing the state budget rather than funding higher education. Its primary purpose was to shore up the Governor’s reputation as a responsible manager of our state’s affairs, one who is prepared to raise taxes to get the state in the black, but who will refuse funding requests from state institutions which he has assailed as bloated (witness his efforts to force UC and CSU to adopt online education as a central part of their work). It only looks like progress because it was preceded by a savage austerity drive led by the same Governor who was transformed back into a progressive hero upon its passage.
Defenders of public education might have provided some of the muscle that made Prop 30’s passage possible, but they received precious little for their efforts. And by continuing to focus their efforts on the University administration rather than the political institutions which would sharply circumscribe the efforts of even the best-intentioned administration to help UC, students and workers are falling into a trap laid by wily state politicians who are afraid to ask Californians to reinvest in their University.
Demanding Napolitano’s head is a mistake. I appreciate the efforts of UAW on behalf of graduate students, and I think that they are right to criticise the elite cadre of administrators who have so clearly failed UC, and have such damaging priorities. But they must recognise that such priorities are only possible given the conditions created by state politics. The current strategy of campus unions, activists, and workers is ill-considered and calculated to make little headway thanks to its failure to address the ultimate causes of UC’s plight.