Sunday, August 24, 2014

UC is No Longer Californians' University

The University of California, Berkeley posted, boastingly on its facebook feed last week that yet another survey of higher education in the United States had ranked the institution the top public university in the country.  Faculty and students have much to be proud of at UC Berkeley as well as other campuses of the University of California, which all ranked high on the survey.
But the gloating about being the “top public university” is going to have to stop one of these days, because increasingly, Berkeley and the other UC campuses are public in name only (PINO?).
At other public institutions—take schools, for example—students attend free of charge because the public as a whole has seen fit to invest in the collective education of our state’s future and youth.  Not so at the University of California, where students pay around $15,000 per year, and look at a total cost per year at Berkeley estimated at somewhere over $30,000.
Berkeley’s previous Chancellor actively sought to free the university from what he saw as the shackles of its public responsibility, advocating that each UC campus be allowed to set fees independently, and for an end to the systemic character of UC.
The current Chancellor has wisely backed away from such rhetoric, but remains convinced of the inevitability of privatization, having entertained no strategy that rolls back or significantly checks events of the past decades.  Indeed, Nicholas Dirks has embraced UC’s connections to the wider world, and is joining other campuses in flinging open the door to out of state students who now make up around 20% of UC students (I’ve heard anecdotally that Berkeley would like to eventually have upwards of 40% out-of-state students).
The advantages to the administration are multiple: the global brand of the University is enhanced; they rake in more cash (out of state students pay over twice what UC students do); and they pioneer a new model for a large “global” university (which of course means a university comprised of global elites).
The downside from Californians’ perspective is that the University is ceasing to serve its primary constituency—California’s students—as it should.  The Sacramento Bee reported that last year Berkeley admitted 18% fewer Californians than in 2007.  In our federal system, it is the responsibility of the states to provide higher education for our state’s youth.  Our country and our state are struggling to re-tool our society for a new global economy, and instead of bringing students from California’s struggling communities to these campuses—which were institutions fabled for their public service when I was much younger—they are bypassing our community in their rush for profits.
Of course, Californians bear a large measure of responsibility for this behavior on the part of the University of California.  Decades of disinvestment from UC—at the same time that higher education has become more complex and diversified than ever, alongside a more demographically complex state—has ensured that administrators in particular give short shrift to their public responsibilities.
Possessed of public-spirited leadership, the University might have reacted differently to disinvestment, and exhibited different priorities.  But the Regents of the University of California are not such a body.  Representing Corporate California, the Regents have seen public disinvestment as an opportunity to embrace rather than a problem to address, and led by Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, and others, have pushed actively for slow, steady privatization which places the burden of funding squarely on students and their families.
Exhibiting all the characteristics of the invertebrates that they have become, California’s Senate approved the re-appointment of Blum and other Regents to additional 12-year terms. 
A few Senators voiced some criticism, but the terms along which they did so exhibited how feeble a grasp they actually have on the issues facing our state’s higher education sphere.  Jim Nielsen, a rather stupid Northern Californian Senator, grumbled that “there is an arrogance in those institutions of higher learning that they can do just whatever they want and they will get funding”, referring to the scrounging of the administrations for out of state students.  “That arrogance”, Nielsen whined, “needs to be tempered a little bit”.
Nielsen is a Republican Senator who, with his party has steadily stripped UC of funding over the years, thanks to his idiotic propensity for signing pledges to Grover Norquist which commit him to turning down tax increases come hell or high water. 
UC’s Regents are certainly more than a little arrogant.  But their arrogance stems from their strong position in relation to the hypocritical whiners like Nielsen.  Because Nielsen and his party have de-funded UC over the years, very little of the system’s funding any longer comes from the state.
So because Nielsen and his fellow Republicans signed over the use of their brains to Grover Norquist and his anti-public crusade, when UC does something wrong like shaft California’s students, legislators can’t do anything about it because they no longer hold any power over UC.  They’ve given up the one thing that once gave them power over the largely independent Regents: the money they traditionally provided for the education of California’s youth.
So today, when Nielsen and his ilk squawk about the “arrogance” of the Regents—which in their case comes from their small-minded attacks on critical institutions of learning—the Richard Blums of this world, who wield far more power and influence in our world than any democratically-elected legislator, can ignore them and proceed apace with privatization, safe in the knowledge that before long they won’t have to listen to Nielsen at all.
Next week, students will start their classes at UC Berkeley, and next month the other campuses in the system will open for the fall quarter.  Incoming students should invest some time in a critical examination of the political economy of their university.
Because the truth is, UC is no longer the university of California and of Californians.  It is fast coming to resemble a private institution, open only to those who can afford to attend and who are not deterred by a terribly expensive sticker price, shorn of any commitment to its state, and looking to make the most of a global market instead of the best of its community.

It would be tragic if Californians gave up what was once their finest public institution.  But unless they experience a change of heart about their commitment to our public sphere and the livelihoods and welfare of future generations, that’s precisely what will occur.

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