On Friday, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee wrote an op-ed to the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley. She argued, to repeat her headline, that “college should be an option for all”.
You might think that this would be an uncontroversial enough stance, and that disagreement, where it arose, would surround the manner in which college was made available to all qualified students.
But you would be wrong. The commentators who leapt to attack Lee’s stance used primarily two different approaches. One group deliberately misread Lee, claiming that she was saying that everyone has to go to college, or that somehow you’re only worthy if you went to college. This is a favourite line of Republican party politicians—usually those who deliver the line have a BA, an MBA, and sometimes a JD—who claim that Democrats are “elitist” for saying that college should be an option for everyone with the qualifications and desire to attend.
It’s a tired, cynical, and mean-spirited argument, made by people who work assiduously to keep the poor poor and the gap between classes in the United States as wide as possible.
The other argument, although it was one that I’d heard many times before, made me think about the governance of public institutions of higher education—an the University of California in particular—in a way that I hadn’t before.
One version of this argument that I saw went something like this, “Berkeley’s chancellor has a mansion in the Oakland hills [he actually gets the upper storey of a house on campus] and there are too many administrators, so”, and here’s where the logic gets a little sketchy, “college isn’t for everyone and we shouldn’t be paying for it!”
What I found interesting was not the argument—if I can be charitable enough to refer to it as such—but rather the way that it made me think about this common critique of the University of California as an institution weighted down at the top by too many administrators.
My general reaction had been something along the lines of the confused commentator, although I drew somewhat different conclusions. I thought that the growth of the administrative caste was not just generally an unfortunate thing, but that it had contributed to the mistrust with which Californians today view their University, leading them to grow more selfish about their tax dollars and less willing to commit them to the education of future generations because they have the convenient excuse that too many of those dollars would be wasted on bureaucrats.
But when I thought about this again today—and I doubt that this is a novel thought, so if anyone knows of anything properly-researched or better-thought-out on the issue, please let me know!—I realized that many of us might have the chronological and causal relationship backwards. It’s no great insight, but it’s at least worth thinking about.
Proving this would require firm historical data about the timing and pace of the rise in the number of upper level administrators as measurable against other factors.
But Californians began the drawn out process of privatizing UC when Ronald Reagan introduced tuition in the 1970s. It continued apace, quickening both during the ‘90s, but then most dramatically during the 2000s, worsening around the time of the recession.
My sense is that the growth in the number of upper-level administrators has been greatest and most egregious in the past ten years, particularly since 2008/9. This timing suggests to me that this growth was a reaction to, rather than a cause of, Californians’ mistrust and divestment.
In other words, UC had been facing disinvestment by the state for decades, and that disinvestment was getting steadily worse. Administrators and Regents, instead of staunchly defending the public nature of their institution and drawing a line in the sand, embraced the move to privatization, seen by many, particularly amongst the corporate-minded Regents as an opportunity.
Anticipating the absence of reinvestment by California in UC—an absence not helped by the favour with which they looked upon the prospect of privatization—they began to make changes. As they began the task of re-organizing the University, its administration, and its cash-flow and –sourcing along drastically new, private lines, they had to build a new bureaucracy, staffed with greater numbers of new kinds of administrators.
From the outside, UC is still viewed as a public institution, and therefore this new caste of administrator is seen as wasteful and unnecessary. But because the institution is being privatized from the inside because of external factors—voters, politicians, the gridlocked state of governance in California—the growth of this bureaucracy is in some respects understandable.
If your ambition is to prepare Berkeley to be a private institution capable of competing with the Ivy League institutions of the U.S., you need the infrastructure in place to pull that off. And that infrastructure is not going to be geared towards the public-minded education of tens of thousands of Californians, but rather towards building a brand, building a private mode of financing the university, and building new networks to manage the relationships of a private institution with its partners in government, in the corporate world, and the ballooning higher education industry which is increasingly not about students and public service.
And because these administrators are working towards such different goals than their critics and their state-wide audience, then you get the cyclical effect. Osbscene salaries, bonuses, a swollen cadre of bureaucrats and other outward manifestations of privatization—which most Californians are thankfully still unwilling to countenance outright—offend the public’s sensibilities, leading the public to countenance further disinvestment, which of course leads to a quickening of the privatization process.
So those of us interested in understanding and critiquing the privatization of UC and other public institutions should account for this different chronology—if in fact it works. It was not the growth of an administrative elite that led to divestment by the public. Rather, divestment by the public pushed the Regents and many administrators to re-tool UC for life as a private institution without state support, and one outcome of that reorganization is a growing caste of administrators whose existence and actions only make sense if we consider that they are there not to defend the public institutions we treasure, but instead to lay the groundwork for the privatization of those institutions, a process which will reduce the accessibility, affordability, and civic-mindedness of the University of California.