Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Considering the "Multiversity" in California

Last week, I wrote a post about the political economy of the University of California.  I got a number of e-mails about it, with some good questions.  One common theme, that people approached from different directions, related to the priorities of the University system.  A number of people mentioned hearing statistics about administrative bloat.


There are currently 233,198 students across ten campuses.  In addition, there are 16,300 faculty at those campuses, and 133,000 staff.  This wasn’t the “two staff for every student” ratio that a couple of people mentioned, but if UC was primarily a teaching institution this ratio would nonetheless be a little disturbing. 

Before unpacking those numbers, it’s also instructive to take a look at where money comes from, and where in goes, in the context of the UC. 

The UC has an annual budget in the neighbourhood of $24 billion.  In 2012/13 the state contributed less than a tenth of that, $2.38 billion.  Students, through their tuition, contributed slightly over a tenth, $2.98 billion.  Much of the rest of the money comes from federal and state contracts, federal support through research grants to the National Labs, grants to students, and funding associated with patients on Medicare and Medicaid at the UC’s hospitals. 

Of that $24 billion, around $6.2 goes to things we would broadly support with teaching at the University: “classroom instruction, financial aid, and other operating costs”.  That seems like a startlingly small amount given that we generally think of Universities as focussing on the education of students.

But the numbers are a reminder that the University of California has become in a very real sense what its first President, Clark Kerr, referred to as the “Multiversity”.  Kerr described his idea as follows:

“The modern university was a ‘pluralistic’ institution—pluralistic in several senses: in having several purposes, not one; in having several centers of power, not one; in serving several clienteles, not one.  It worshiped no single God; it constituted no single, unified community; it had no discretely defined set of customers.  It was marked by many visions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and by many roads to achieve these visions; by power conflicts,; by service to many markets and concern for many publics.

“It might have been called a pluralistic university; or a conglomerate university...What I wanted to do was to mark the contrast with a more nearly single-purpose institution having a more monistic spirit, a more monolithic leadership, and a single clientele”.*

I’ll come back in a moment to Kerr’s words, and his role in shaping the University.  But his idea of the multiversity is useful because it represents the reality that the University of California is no longer exclusively—or these days even mostly—a teaching university.  It runs three National Labs, which have no students, but employ teams of scientists and the large support staffs they require.  It runs five medical centers, with all of the doctors, nurses, and hospital support staff that requires.  UCSF, the Medical School which has no undergraduate students, is San Francisco’s second largest employer with some 21,900 workers, generating nearly 40,000 jobs across the Bay Area.  Even on campuses, active labs require not only faculty, post-docs, and graduate students, but also employees who do much of the preparatory work.  All of these facilities require custodial and maintenance work, there are dorms and dining halls and cafeterias, libraries, and academic units.

There is administrative bloat, to be sure.  The salaries of Chancellors, the President, and the alphabet soup of lower-order bloodsuckers—the people hired to fire the people who do actual work—are wildly inflated.  And the University—driven in part by a broken ranking system and its links to the political and economic elites of the state—engages in infrastructure projects which often seem as removed from reality as Telegraph Avenue does from the small town where I grew up. 

But the large number of staff is to a large extent not the result of a bureaucracy run rampant as the popular imagination would hold it.  Rather, it is a result of the University choosing, and the state asking the University to take on a whole host of roles that have little to do with the teaching of undergraduate students.

That said, there is room for serious debate about whether the University does all of these things well, and whether its priorities are in order.  Of those 16,000 faculty, most of them teach, although they are not always teaching all of the time: they have sabbaticals, research commitments, and outside grants which occasionally relieve them of their duties.  But teaching is augmented by many of the 50,000 graduate students.  Not all of them do much teaching, but many of them on doctoral academic tracks—as opposed to many masters students and professional tracks in business, law, etc—will teach at least once during their time as grad students.  In the humanities and social sciences, they teach a great deal more than that. 

Today, Clark Kerr is generally regarded as one of the ‘good guys’.  He might not have liked the student protesters of the ‘60s, but he tried to stick up for them more often than not.  He fought against the introduction of tuition at the University, and was fired by Ronald Reagan for these sins. 

But in the 1960s, he was heavily criticised by students, and much of that criticism had to do with the “Multiversity” into which UC was morphing.  Kerr was often less an advocate for the transformations associated with UC’s altered state than someone who described them and sought to use them to what he regarded as the system’s best advantage.  He was in many respects, a realist, something which did not endear him to a generation of idealistic students.

The changes that irked students in the sixties are ones which have come to something nearer full fruition today.  At that time, students began to realise that they were less and less central to the functioning of the University.  Their classes expanded—although this was an inevitable part of the state simultaneously asking UC to educate more of its students and cutting its funding—they had less contact with their professors, and they saw funding directed in other directions.

The corporate world, the military-industrial complex, the federal government, and the more complex and diverse society to which California aspired all made their demands on the University, and as the institutions and the system grew, and although students increased in number, their centrality to the UC became diminished.

As an aside, the paucity of investment in teaching is not helped by the fact that most of the metrics designed to measure faculty and graduate student teaching—whether when seeking work, getting tenure, securing funding, or winning accolades—pay no attention to teaching.  There are no incentives for teachers in the university to focus many of their efforts on teaching, or even to think of themselves as teachers.  And there are many temptations to spend a little more time in the lab, on a publication, or on professional development which leaves undergraduates feeling neglected.

I don’t know whether this grab-bag of thoughts helps to answer some of the questions that readers posed.  But I hope that when we all think about the University, we think about how much the built-in suspicion many harbour of its activities are grounded in any material facts, or are simply the outgrowth of deliberate attempts by some on the political right to undermine the institution as a part of their larger project of calling into question the idea of the public good and the ideals of public institutions. 

And I hope that as the state makes up its mind about how to treat its University in a new century—a new millennium in fact—it considers the extent to which overstretch (whether good or bad) is not so much the product of bureaucratic indulgence as it is of our citizenry having placed our trust—no inconsiderable burden—in an institution without providing it with the moral or material support to carry out a range of diverse and perhaps irreconcilable functions. 

Today, the University is increasingly resembling a private institution, sustained not by the faith and commitment of a community to the common welfare, but rather by its ability to keep its head above water by exploiting its students and monetising knowledge.  There are people in the administration who would like to move the UC down that dangerous road at a quicker pace.

But I hope we can remember that, sometimes by design and sometimes by happenstance, we fashioned this outsized idea, gave it institutional form, and embedded it in our Republic of California to serve our citizenry through the education of our youth, the investigation of our world, and the service of the common good.  That seems like something worth protecting, if we have the will to do so.

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* Clark Kerr.  The Uses of the University (fifth edition).  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, 103. 

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