Saturday, August 16, 2014

What Can the Berkeley International House Celebrate as it Turns 84?

I called the International House in Berkeley—which is celebrating its 84th birthday on Monday—“home” for five years.   The friendships I most value were made in the cavernous building, which perches at Bancroft and Piedmont Avenues, overlooking the campus, the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  The conversations I’ll remember the most, and from which I learned the most, took place within its walls.  And I’ve laughed the hardest and longest over dinner in its dining hall.
But as the International House celebrates its eighty-fourth year, I find myself wondering exactly what it is celebrating.  All residents are told the story of Harry Edmonds, who in New York befriended a visiting Chinese student.  The student expressed great gratitude, recounting how everyone else at Columbia University had ignored him.  Startled by the divides that could exist between people of different races, Edmonds met with John Rockefeller, and the two of them planned a series of International Houses: in New York, in Paris, in Chicago, and in Berkeley.
The story of the Chinese student is a good anecdote.  But the International House movement was not created in a vacuum.  Rockefeller was a noted internationalist, and his biographer cites the First World War as a catalytic moment in the development of his thinking. 
Seen from this historical perspective, the International House was a response to a war that killed 17 million people in the name of nationality, and national rivalries.  Internationalists saw conflicts between nations, between people of different ethnicities, and people who spoke different languages as the greatest threats to peace in their day.  The International House—described as a “new kind of experiment, the day to day practice of international fellowship among men and women”—was one way of addressing those threats.
Recognising that words needed to be accompanied by actions, the founders of the Berkeley International House built their community in the middle of white-only fraternities and sororities, actively undermining the case for segregation  and discrimination.  Those are actions of which the International House should be proud, and on which it should build today in addressing the world’s challenges.
Our world remains dangerously divided, but it is increasingly obvious that today the most devastating divisions are not between people of different nations, but between people—within and across national boundaries—who have access to the resources that allow them to live meaningful, dignified, secure lives; and those who do not.  Economic inequality is not only a danger in its own right, but is also a contributor to violent competition for resources, to the growth of religious fundamentalism, and is a catalyst for violence around “national” differences which would otherwise be inconsequential.
UC Berkeley, with which I-House is affiliated, in common with our state and the wider world, is becoming a more unequal place.  The state is divesting from our youth and our future, tuition has risen at an astonishing rate, and graduating students face massive debt, underemployment, and an uncertain future.  The academic work within the university is increasingly casualized, workers are seeing their rights eroded, and an institution of learning is fast being turned into a competitive marketplace, with intellectual inquiry and idealism ruthlessly subordinated to economic dictates. 
Instead of standing as a bulwark against these tides, the International House is increasingly an active contributor to these dangerous trends.  Rent has risen precipitously, by around $3,000 for a 9-month period for both undergraduate and graduate students since I first arrived.  Management has created an adversarial relationship towards its employees, to an even greater degree than elsewhere on campus.  And management is content to wall itself off from internal criticism, responding to disquiet by adding layers of bureaucracy instead of using its resources to address the concerns of students and staff who should be its core constituency.
Defenders of these trends cite continued demand for space at I-House as evidence that no one is being priced out, and cite its non-profit status as a defense of the nature of its relations with its employees.  And students are asked to pay these ridiculous rents at least in part to fund big expenditures on renovations in the House that are nice but very unnecessary in their scope.
Defenders of the sky-high cost of tuition and rent alike argue that with a lot of hard work and a little bit of aid, Berkeley students can get by.  And it’s true.  Most of them will get by.  Eventually they will graduate.  Given enough time they should be able to find a job.  Ultimately, they will hopefully prove able to pay down their debt. But “getting by” is not what the International House—or the University—are supposed to be about.
The institution pays a price for spending more and more of other people’s money with such abandon and for adopting this model, which pushes students right up to—and sometimes beyond-the breaking point.  There might be continued demand, but it is not demand from all the same constituencies.  The International House no longer looks like California, and it no longer looks like the world.  People might hail from different countries and speak different languages.  But the barriers to access are over time ensuring that people are converging on a type—representing one class, that of the elites who have emerged on top as a result of the same globalization that keeps so many others in poverty.  Residents increasingly represent the same outlooks and are drawn from the same social stratum across the world.
There are other, broader costs associated with this model.  The University used to be a place where people could take a few years of their lives, supported by the public, to strengthen their minds and devote themselves to thinking about how to address some of their society’s ills.  But people who are stretched so thin and face such an uncertain future are not people capable of devoting themselves to solving the problems that so preoccupied Rockefeller and Edmonds after a World War.  And if these people—supposed to be a meritocratic elite, educated at an elite university, and one once known for its activism and radicalism, by people on the cutting edge of every field—are rendered incapable of tackling the world’s ills, who is left? 
Students who know that they will face high debt upon graduating are not really free to choose what to study or what to do with their time.  Because the leaders of the University and the International House send them out into the world weighted down with financial obligations instead of buoyed by hope, students choose what to study based on economic need rather than idealism.  The International House is sadly helping to undermine the humanistic endeavor at the heart of its mission.
These problems with the International House were not immediately apparent to me.  It took some time before I began to scrutinize my home with a more critical eye.  I appreciated—far more, needless to say, than the administration with which I interacted—the opportunity to become a comparatively long-term member of what I believed should be a self-critical community, dedicated to making the idealistic rhetoric its leaders deployed so casually into a reality at home.  But that was an opportunity that will be denied to future students and scholars.  Citing a desire to open up more spaces to short-term residents—those of us who had stayed over four years barely made it into the double digits in a community of around 600—the administration implemented a four-year rule.
Maybe the move was about space, but given the tiny numbers involved, it was curious that it also removed the capacity for institutional criticism from residents, most of whom stay for just a semester or a year, are there to have a good time, and don’t learn the ins and outs of the institution. 
As a member of a fast-dwindling “awkward squad”, unafraid of making our views known, I was approached on many occasions by staff from virtually every department in the building who wanted to blow-off steam about the management culture in which they worked.  Custodians, kitchen staff, maintenance workers, and office staff all expressed distaste for the top-down, walled-in, “speak when you’re spoken to” culture of the Executive Director’s office—and this in an institution supposedly dedicated to the promotion of harmony and good feeling.
To all appearances, the International House is being managed by people who have no idea of what it means to be a student or a worker in these uncertain times, and who are incapable of understanding why their actions are often interpreted as offensive or lacking in perspective.
I had a wonderful experience at the International House.  But that experience had nothing to do with the quality of the furnishings, the superiority of the front entrance, the grandeur of the dining hall, or the tastiness of the food—all of those things into which the Board of Directors is pouring millions of residents’ dollars.
Rather, I will always treasure my experience there because I found a group of people with whom I could have wonderful, memorable, heartfelt conversations about the pleasures and the problems of the world.  But the longer we lived there, the more often those conversations turned to some of the dispiriting ways in which a place we loved—in a seeming state of autopilot—is replicating too many of the ills of the world.
With other residents, I’d met with two successive Executive Directors, as well as other administrators.  I found the administration contemptuous of organized labour, dismissive of staff complaints, convinced of the inevitability of rising rents, and utterly disinterested in student input.  The Board of Directors was similarly aloof, and reneged on its pledges to follow-up with residents about specific community issues that arose over the years.  The reply from all quarters became increasingly rote: “your views are appreciated and will be taken into consideration”.  And it was a reply delivered absent either any interest in working with residents towards solutions to serious problems, and devoid of any ability to articulate a method of follow-up.  The administration’s solution remained, over the years, to wait out residents in the knowledge that sooner or later even the most persistent of us will fade away.
I left Berkeley in the spring.  Before leaving, I spoke to the Board of Directors at its final meeting of the academic year.  Attending the meeting required an absurd vetting process which involved a member of the student resident council having to give up their own spot, to ensure that the 600 students they represent did not take up more than 10-15 minutes of the Board Members’ valuable time.  I was instructed to avoid “petty grievances”—not, I hope, a reference to the criticisms that residents raised over the wooden and unaccountable manner in which administration responded to the death during the spring on the job of Damon Frick, a custodian—and was given orders not to name any names. 
I delivered my criticism in the most straightforward terms possible.  I expected a response—and Board Members were given an opportunity to respond—whether that took the form of push-back, questions, or comments.  But the members of the board sat mute, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, refusing to engage, a room full of glazed-over eyes.  It was as though they had decided on a collective response: “If we don’t look at our student critics”—the people they are ostensibly there to serve—“they’ll just go away and we can go about our business”.   
The Board Members and the Executive Director have created a culture of management which will hear but not listen to students or staff, no less make any discernible effort to address the growth of inequality, troubling staff-management relations, and the heavy burden they place on residents.  It is a culture that focuses on the external appearance of the building rather than on the internal character of the community.  And it is a culture that seems utterly detached from any serious moral agenda of the kind that motivated the founders of the International House. 

It is sad to see this befall a place that I will always associate with happy times and good friends.  But I hope that future residents, alumni, and staff will do what they can to change the sad trajectory of an institution with so much wasted potential.

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