Sunday, April 13, 2014

Clark Kerr's University of California: Book Review

Published in 2011, Christina González’ exploration of the University of California through the philosophy of its most famous President, Clark Kerr, is a timely contribution to debates about the future of the University of California.  In Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011), González departs from the premise that to understand the future of the University, we must understand its past.

González was personally close to Kerr, and clearly regards him as a near-unique figure in terms of his impact and philosophy from her vantage point of a long-time student of policy and governance in the higher education arena.  Early chapters are semi-biographical inasmuch as they provide context for Kerr’s upbringing and trace influences of philosophers and educational thinkers on the man who served as Chancellor at Berkeley and President of the UC at a time when the campus and system were undergoing great growth; when political challenges on- and off-campus destabilised the institution; and when the current model of tuition was imposed over Kerr’s protests. 

Kerr identified the most critical development of his tenure as the rise of the “Multiversity”, or the manner in which the traditional university was wrenched from its comfort zone and subjected to the utilitarian demands of a fast-changing society with the attendant goods and ills that process mandated.  González regards Kerr as the ideal leader during that period because of his leadership style, and various sections throughout the book offer musings on garden-variety Mammalia, namely hedgehogs and foxes.

In González’ reading of Kerr’s formulation (which is borrowed from other contexts), “hedgehogs are transformational leaders, while foxes are transactional ones” (12).  The essential argument of the book is that Kerr, a hedgehog, went out of fashion and was replaced by a series of fox-like University leaders.  González argues that now, as the University faces a new crisis, rule by foxes is not only inadequate, but has contributed to the rise of a misguided administrative cadre, and that we are ready for a new generation of hedgehogs in positions of leadership.

The chapters on Kerr’s philosophical journey, and some of the sections on internal UC politics in the latter portion of the book read a bit like inside baseball (although the examples are well-chosen and illustrative). 

González’ own argument is captured in a quotation from Upton Sinclair’s The Goose Step, wherein he quotes the daughter of Johns Hopkins’ first president.  Elizabeth Gilman wrote in the early part of the twentieth century that “the fine new buildings and campus have not to my mind compensated for a considerable lowering of intellectual ideals and accomplishments.  Money getting is horribly dangerous to institutions as well as to individuals, and the Johns Hopkins University has been out to get money.  It is true that this money has been given for education and not for profit, and yet even so, there may be the insidious temptation of adopting purely business standards” (30). 

Those “business standards” were part of what students in Kerr’s day criticised in his explanation and partial embrace of the “Multiversity”.  González argues that private and public universities are slowly converging on a model which will do a disservice to the public the latter are meant to serve, to the diversity of that public in particular, and most especially to undergraduate students, the last remaining sector of the campus to be significantly funded by decaying state support, a dubious distinction which absent sudden change puts those students in an unenviable position (120).

González'  treatment of Kerr is far from uncritical, and she notes deficiencies in his leadership style which left his response to student protests looking wooden and ineffective, creating an opening for the UC’s chief detractor, Ronald Reagan.  But Kerr himself remarked on the emergence of the “Unfaculty” (like the “Undead”) to describe what we would recognise today as the proliferation of unsecure lecturers and adjunct faculty who increasingly shoulder the teaching burden while forming a poorly-compensated, under-supported, and ill-cared for caste in the academic community (57).  González describes how “as tuition and fees are increasing, salaries and benefits for low-paid campus workers, such as food workers and janitors, are being kept low, oftentimes by outsourcing these jobs, giving rise to protests.  This process is aggravated by the fact that academics themselves are divided into two classes, a shrinking body of tenure-track faculty and an army of lecturers and researchers with no job security and lower compensation and prestige” (75).  This process is representative of trends in the workforce at large.

What I think must be a novel contribution of the book is its attention to diversity.  From the early twentieth century, the presence of women and minorities was seen as an impediment to “excellence” (143-47), the imperative in the intensely competitive world of U.S. universities.  The widely-praised Master Plan nonetheless embodied what González sees as Kerr’s primary defect, his failure to attend to the need for the representation of all Californians at the UC.  Because of the manner in which the Master Plan cut access to UC, it actually contributed to the segregation of higher education in the state at the very moment of the civil rights struggle (65).

For me, the weakness of the book was the extent to which it downplays the way in which the University is tied up in the state’s political economy.  In calling for a return of Hedgehogs as University leaders, González seems to assume that a visionary would be able to do what no one else has and persuade California’s anti-social, miserly public that it could stand to benefit from reinvesting in an institution it is on the cusp of losing. 

Conversely, although González recognises the complicity of the public, I believe she also understates the extent to which the openness to the privatisation and commercialisation of the University by some of its leaders has been adopted with enthusiasm rather than gritted teeth.  She writes, California’s public has “forced public universities to become privatized, with all that that entails in terms of differential compensation for its employees.  There is a cause-and-effect relationship between lack of public support for higher education and the tuition hikes that universities are experiencing.  To criticize the university for becoming more like a private business  is blaming the victim” (184).

But the UC Regents and some administrators have been very open about their desire to mould the University in the vision of their own corporate cave.  A good example of this came when UC hired Mark Yudof as its President.  In defending Yudof’s extraordinary compensation package, UC Regent Richard Blum (husband of Senator Feinstein), declared, “He’s expensive, but he’s worth it” (186).

González questions that received wisdom.  “Until now”, she writes, “the University of California has invoked the market to justify the salaries of its high-level administrators, and it was true that if it wanted to recruit the most highly-paid university executives in the country, it needed to meet and exceed the compensation they were receiving elsewhere.  But is it necessary or desirable to hire those kind of executives anymore?” (191). To González, to much of the UC community, and to most people in California, the answer is a blindingly obvious “No”.  And yet the Regents and upper-level administration persist in defending the value of outsized salaries that have yielded precious little in the way of material returns to the UC.

In debunking the logic behind the game, González writes, “What started as a legitimate competition for executive talent has turned into a game of musical chairs, in which executives move from institution to institution in pursuit of ever-increasing compensation, a system that is fostered by the search firms, which make a great deal of money with this game...It is a vicious circle: the more money an executive makes, the more desirable he or she becomes without any apparent consideration of actual performance.  In fact, some executives now are moving so often that they simply do not have time to accomplish anything anywhere” (229-30). 

This behaviour on the part of the unaccountable Regents—themselves occupying patronage positions dispensed by sitting governors—is only part of the problem facing California’s public, for whom “the high tuition-high aid formula is arcane and off-putting.  Students and their parents want to know the cost of tuition up front, and they want this cost to be moderate” (76-7).  González recognises the barriers this model—championed by Berkeley’s recent Chancellor Robert Birgeneau—imposes on many Californians, and the uncertainty that it introduces into people’s lives.  This uncertainty is no accident, of course, and mirrors the instability that poorly-regulated markets introduce into the wider job market.

González is unabashed in arguing for an expansion rather than a retraction of the Master Plan (226).  She does not provide a particularly concrete path forward for the reinvigoration of higher education in the Golden State.

But in her history of the UC and her exploration of the leadership styles through which it has been governed over the years, she provides an example of how such a reversal can occur.  Conventional wisdom today holds that UC has to adapt to the brave new world of the market, of high fees, and of declining state support.  Critics of the administration are dismissed and told to “get real”.  Proponents of public higher education are written off as unrealistic romantics. 

But González describes how in the early 1980s, UC President David Gardner, partly as a result of his particular leadership capabilities and partly as a result of favourable circumstances, was able to see a massive (32%) increase in funding for the UC (151ff).  Reagan’s late-1960s attack on the University might have begun a decline which looks irreversible from the vantage point of mid-2014.  But viewed from 1983, things might have looked differently, and this episode reminds us that as citizens, we retain some notional control over the circumstances in which we debate the importance of our public institutions.

González emphasis on individual agency might be overstated, particularly if restricted to the men at the helm of the UC.  But particularly at moments like ours when the inequity of our society is becoming increasingly visible, the public could be primed to launch a fight-back against the idea that educational decline is inevitable.  It might very well do so out of a recognition that we benefit as a collective from investing in institutions which possess the capacity to restore equity and vitality to our society.  In González view, which I very much share, UC has the potential to be precisely such an institution.  

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