Monday, February 10, 2014

At Berkeley, BAMN's Self-Indulgence Hurts Defenders of Public Higher Education

By Any Means Necessary.  Members of this group have been distributing leaflets on UC Berkeley’s campus for months now.  Their website describes BAMN as a “coalition to defend affirmative action, integration and immigrant rights and fight for equality by any means necessary”. 

Those are lofty goals, but also commendable ones.  Active on Berkeley, BAMN has made Janet Napolitano, the new University of California President, its primary target, and is urging students to spend the coming Thursday protesting her visit to Berkeley in order to “remove Janet Napolitano as UC President and replace her with a great educator”.  This, they hope, will “defend public education [and] stop the privatization of the UCs”.

I am instinctively sympathetic to groups interested in preserving the public character of the University of California.  Today, that University system has been much degraded.  It is now public in name only because—in the absence of support from California’s public—the primary burden is borne not by taxpayers, but rather by individual students and their families in the form of sky-high tuition.  An enormous cadre of administrators—the growth in whose numbers corresponds suspiciously with the decline of the University community as a whole—works to find ways to cut corners and cosy up to the private sector.  And while Berkeley’s current Chancellor has made sympathetic noises towards advocates of the public university, his predecessor was open about his desire to break-up the UC community and begin the work of formal privatisation.

In such circumstances, we need strong action, and groups possessed of BAMN’s aspirations could play a leading role.  But to this point such groups have consistently and deliberately chosen to ignore the political economy in which the University of California is inextricably embedded, and to indulge in inaccurate rhetoric about campaigns which would do little to nothing to improve UC’s plight.

In the summer of 2009 I attended a meeting comprising members of the campus community invested in acting and speaking out against the skyrocketing fees.  But most of those present evinced little interest in building a community-wide movement which would require doing the hard work of explaining the source of UC’s decline, and instead wanted to focus on throwing toilet paper at the then-Chancellor, and in staging events designed to suggest that cutting administrative salaries could put UC back on safe footing and restore its public character.

BAMN is working in this tradition.  Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley’s Chancellor in 2009, proved himself no friend to public higher education, and his contemporary as UC President, Mark Yudof, was openly contemptuous of his community.  Napolitano has shown herself much more sympathetic than either of them—or at least better at expressing that sympathy.  And if even a little bit of that sympathy is genuine, I wager that she would be a more effective advocate for UC than the most well-meaning academic given her knowledge of the very political process by which UC secures funding from the state.

More to the point, if BAMN members somehow ousted Napolitano and replaced her with the candidate of their choice, exactly nothing would have occurred to make UC better off.  Because however much administrative salaries might have risen to the detriment of the campus as a whole, nothing the UC President could do would come anywhere near to offsetting the steep decline in state funding that UC has seen over the past decades, a process which quickened apace beginning around 2008.

BAMN and like-minded organisations have insisted on focussing on the “bad guys” on campus, ensuring that their campaign remains ill-informed and retains not the slightest prospect of actually helping UC.  They are ensuring that the cruel caricature of student activists—as young people who lash out in an ill-informed and misjudged manner—is actually given credence.

The real threats to the University of California comes from elsewhere.

On the one hand, there is California’s cynical and disenchanted public, itself largely ignorant of the inconsistencies it creates through its voting habits.  The public mistrusts politicians, and with good reason.  But the public ignores its own culpability in our state’s dysfunctional politics, an appraisal which is hardly honest given that voters act effectively act as an un-integrated branch of government in the state.  And voters apportion blame evenly across party lines when most of the state’s ills stem from the efforts of California’s Republican Party to fashion the state as a laboratory for its twisted economic fundamentalism.  The Republican Party has worked tirelessly since Ronald Reagan’s governorship to sabotage the workings of state government and thereby foster distrust and disengagement in the public.

The institutional political right is aided in these efforts by its usual supporters: irresponsible members of the upper classes who don’t think they share any responsibility for their fellow citizens, and corporations which seek to enlarge their profits by creating a welfare state designed to support their own well-being rather than that of the public. 

UC’s other worst enemy is the very method by which Californians have historically sought to protect themselves from the predations of special interests: political reform.  California is now governed less by the formal political class its citizens love to hate than by a series of interlocking initiatives, representing a grab-bag of aspirations voiced discordantly by successive generations.  (For a good account of the state’s structural impasse, read Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.)

The infamous Proposition 13 is a good example.  A measure sold by big property owners to voters as homeowner protection has turned into a multi-generation giveaway for the wealthy which simultaneously allows the state to be governed by an unrepresentative minority and kills off the public sphere, damaging schools, universities, libraries, and parks, while inhibiting our ability to create the infrastructure which our society requires in the twenty-first century.

So when BAMN blames UC’s administrative rot and tries to tell us either that removing Napolitano is a priority, or that removing Napolitano is something which would help the University, they are exhibiting either great ignorance or great dishonesty.  If they want a law to focus on, Prop 13 deserves much blame.  If they want a wider cause, an overhaul of the state’s political apparatus to address our democratic deficit is long overdue.  If they want to blame an individual, California’s GOP offers its share of villains, and our Governor, Jerry Brown, has proven himself to be a formidable obstacle to progress in the Golden State

UC’s survival as a public institution is on the line, and this is no moment to be wasting time and energy on political efforts which not only look unlikely to succeed, but which would do nothing to address the cultural, ideological, and structural sources of our decline. 

There is real work to be done in addressing economic inequality, pushing back against the assault on the public sphere, and restoring key attributes of democracy to our governing system.  And yet BAMN and its supporters look like they are prepared to do anything to ensure that they fail in their efforts to save UC.  Their self-indulgence has no place in a serious campaign to address the degradation of California’s great institutions of learning.  

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