Monday, September 22, 2014

The University of California in the News

The University of California, my home for ten years, has been in the news frequently lately, and not, as a rule, to the institution’s credit.  Each newsworthy development serves in some way to demonstrate the degree to which the University and its administrators are out of touch with what ought to be their core constituency and the public they ostensibly serve.
UC announced the creation of a new venture-capital fund “to invest in inventions developed by students and faculty”.  On the one hand, the University performs a significant service when it produces information or technology which stands to benefit society in the short-term. 
However, even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to note that “the shift to a more entrepreneurial approach hasn’t enjoyed unanimous support—particularly when assistance comes directly from the university.  Some faculty members have expressed concern that such investment activity favours certain departments over others and fosters a competitive, market-driven atmosphere that isn’t conducive to pure academic research”. 
The rush to produce instantaneously-utilitarian products is part of a broader pattern whereby—shorn of state funding—UC and other public institutions seek to follow market trends and capture the funds associated with the needs of the business and corporate worlds.  Many universities are also attending solicitously to those subjects and themes corporate America thinks should be emphasized in university classrooms.
These institutional incentives are likely to ensure that this is where the money for research accumulates, and this cannot but have effects on the priorities of researchers, circumscribing their independence and directing their efforts.  As the tremendous furor associated with Apple’s release of the I Phone 6 demonstrates, “entrepreneurs” and the “market” do not always have the most highly-developed sense of the public good or of the most pressing problems facing our world.
But as deaf to the urgent demands of our troubled world as Apple might be, it can hardly compete with the Regents of the University of California.  Having more than doubled student tuition in the last decade while failing to stem disinvestment by the State of California and seeing departments close, library hours shrink, and support staff furloughed where not fired, the UC Regents are showing how closely they identify with the culture of corporate America that most of us have grown to despise.
I always understood that pay raises were associated with admirable performance.  UC’s leadership has failed to prevent the skyrocketing of student tuition.  It has failed to halt disinvestment from the University by the state.  It has failed to slow the process of privatization.  It has failed to address the instrumentalization of research or the corporatization of the University’s governing structure.  It has failed to address the democratic deficit that operates on campuses where leadership walls itself off from student, staff, and faculty critics.
They have failed to realize that the “academic quality” of their institution, threats to which they cited in their decision to raise the Chancellors’ salaries, is not measured by the pay that administrators receive, but rather by the education they provide to their students and the research conducted by their faculty.  Regent Bonnie Reiss admitted that “at first I was concerned about how this will look to the general public”, before setting aside the use of her grey cells and following the logic of the business of higher education.
But Reiss and her colleagues—and more importantly, California’s students and their families—will pay a price when they next go to the state for more funding.  Because our cheapskate governor and our cringing legislature will think twice before attempting to devote more funds to an institution with such a poor set of priorities. 
Regent Russell Gould (a former Wachovia vice president) talked about “correcting injustices” by raising the three chancellors’ salaries by about the annual pay of a junior faculty member, taking them to nearly $400,000.  How anyone who lives in the real world—as opposed to the parallel universe inhabited by the slack-jawed Regents—can think of $383,000 as an “injustice” somewhat beggars belief.
But so did the comments of Norman Pattiz (worth around $350 million), who only reluctantly supported the pay increase—reluctantly, because he though “it’s wholly inadequate based upon the results (the chancellors) have delivered”.
Those results being the privatization of a public good, the monetization of education, the casualization of labour, the instrumentalization of research, and the brutalization of students by campus police who were turned loose on them to settle political disputes between members of the campus community when the administration’s sterling logic failed to persuade students. 
Anyone who was on a UC campus between 2009 and 2012 likely recalls at least one episode of police violence.  Administrators regularly resorted to unleashing brute force on peacefully protesting students.  Police broke bones and shattered the idealism of a generation of students, an idealism that will be all the more difficult to reclaim given the impunity with which they savaged the very community they and the Chancellors ostensibly exist to protect and nurture.
BAMN, a student group whose members suffered from police violence, is suing UC, but the suit has been repeatedly dismissed to the glee of UC, which maintains that no one can be held culpable for the violence against the students.  UC claims that “supervisors cannot be charged because even though they gave orders, they did not conduct the alleged brutality and false arrests.  Furthermore, the subordinate police officers, who carried out the alleged violence and false arrests, cannot be charged for acting under orders”.  A frustrated BAMN chair argued that UC’s approach is “an attempt to sandwich us into not being able to hold anyone responsible for what happened that day”. 
If stupidity were not—correctly—legal, BAMN could turn its attention to Robert Birgeneau, who when Chancellor of Berkeley dispatched campus psychologists to deal with protesting students, as though their objection to the privatization of a public university was somehow a symptom of a mental disorder.  Birgeneau referred in his classic e-mails to protestors as a “health and safety issue” (like termites), claimed that he couldn’t keep tabs on events on campus from his tour in Asia (apparently they don’t have e-mail or the internet over there), and labeled students who linked arms after the fashion of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr “not non-violent”.

It is the likes of Birgeneau, who failed upwards to great acclaim in the higher education industry when he retired from Berkeley, that are being rewarded by the Regents, and who govern their campuses with such outward unfeeling for the pain that the Regents are inflicting on what was once a magnificent public university system in their efforts to turn institutions of education into businesses. 

1 comment:

  1. Delicious, like a golden Apple,
    Nothing like a dig and Brown and Birgeneau (who you might be mistaken in believing had anything to do with current news) to start the day. Better then a strong cup of coffee :-)

    Speaking of Apples, not sure why you felt compelled to include it as an example of "entrepreneurship" gone astray. The fervor around the release of the the iphone 6 is many things: rampant consumerism, corporate constructed identities, business/media complex, I'd even give you some sort of neo-colonialism exploitation of foreign workers (maybe), but it is not entrepreneurship. The worlds largest company releasing the 6th iteration of the product that made it so, pretty much fits no one's definition of entrepreneurship. A shame too, because there are SO MANY examples of start-ups meeting problems that only rich privileged techies have: Parking Chimp (in the news recently), that butler app that won Tech-Crunch disrupt last week...pretty much anything that wins Tech-Crunch disrupt. On the other hand there are a lot of start-ups out of the university that really do attempt to address serious problems: for example the anti-malarial drugs out of the Keasling group, batteries, clean energy,...there was also some very innovative sensor company that started recently...what was it called again....?

    I agree though, the pay raises to correct inequality are ridiculous. Only in the rarified and stultifying air of board rooms and regents meetings is $380,000 an unfair salary. Do they think they need to pay them that much cash to soak up all the tears inflicted by this blog....zing :-)

    But I don't think it has much to do with Police violence on campus though, seems like a symptom of this CEO-fication of education (and the broader economy). All over the country heads of university seems way over paid. But governing bodies are treating the schools like private businesses and the trend seems to be pay the person at the top way more then is reasonable regardless of outcomes (also see Robert Godell)

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