Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jerry Brown's History with the University of California

It should be clear, on the eve of extended tuition hikes at the University of California that Jerry Brown has been no friend to the UC during his latest four years as Governor.  He continued and deepened the cuts made by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who appeared to at least understand the importance of UC), and restored only minimal funding in the latter years of his tenure.
While he has hit the right notes in complaining about a bloated administration and unseemly pay raises amongst the growing cadres of bureaucrats at UC, Brown has also pushed the University to cheapen its mission, shoving students out the doors as quickly as possible, substituting online courses for a serious education, and scaling back the UC’s ambitions.  He is presiding over the slow but steady privatization of the UC, as his refusal to fund the public institution forces tuition steadily upwards given that UC is educating more students, engaging in more research, and is ever more connected to California’s political economy and, therein, the state’s fortunes.
But Californians shouldn’t be surprised by Jerry Brown’s hostility to the state’s preeminent public institution and the country’s best university system.  Since the 1970s, Brown has adopted a Tea Party-esque view of the public sphere, often providing a pseudo-intellectual gloss for his small-minded irresponsibility, his embrace of crippling austerity, and his obsession with “fiscal responsibility” and the social irresponsibility that goes along with a doctrine which sees budgets as ends rather than means.
But Brown also has a more specific track record when it comes to UC.
David Gardner was the University of California President from 1983 to 1991, coming in on the heels of Brown’s first two terms as Governor.  The timing of his tenure meant that Gardner spent his early years picking up the pieces at a University suffering from neglect.  In his autobiography, he mused about “how [he] would have managed as president in the later 1970s with Governor Jerry Brown and what came to be his quite unfriendly views of the University of California” (103).
Gardner elaborated on the out-going Governor’s hostility to UC, recalling how “Brown felt UC’s high standards for admission, excellent faculty, world-class research, and vast intellectual, cultural, and creative resources were an unreasonable burden on the state.  If UC wanted to seek and attain those levels of excellence, [Brown] believed, then it could get the money from sources other than the State of California’s taxpayers” (160). 
Gardner’s analysis suggests that Brown had little understanding of the logic of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, and did not appreciate that UC’s very strength came from its location at the intersection between providing public education and engaging in public research.  And let’s not forget that today, the other tiers of California’s higher education system—the California State University and the California Community Colleges—have also been victims of Brown’s attacks.
Jerry Brown is normally seen as the antithesis of the morally-stunted, small-government fanatics who have dominated California’s politics since the 1970s, first under Ronald Reagan and then thanks to undemocratic supermajority requirements enshrined by Proposition 13, from their minority status in the legislature.  But Brown actually bears a striking resemblance to those on the far right.
This parallel was not lost on Gardner.  “In strange ways”, he wrote, “both Reagan and Brown had concluded that UC shouldn’t be as excellent as it had become, at least not on the taxpayers dollars” (161).  This is a view that Brown regularly propounds to voters today, usually as an excuse for not addressing the underlying structural problems that flatline or shrink California’s revenue at the same time that the state is growing in population and demographic complexity.
Gardner faced considerable challenges as an incoming President, in part because the UC was resource-starved and “had suffered grievously under Governors Reagan and Brown for sixteen years” (196).  Both of these governors were, in his mind, guilty of “fiscal neglect” (211), and their neglect had created a great deal of anxiety within the UC system.
Gardner recalled how during budget discussion at UC, “everyone seemed clearly committed to the university’s well-being, its mission, and its importance to the state, while expressing time and again a fear for the university’s immediate and prospective fiscal health.  The fear was well-founded, owing to the deteriorating base of UC’s funding from both state and federal sources, the reduced state of affairs for the university’s five medical centers, and low moral within the university as a whole, weary from fighting with California’s governors for sixteen years, eight with Ronald Reagan and eight with Jerry Brown” (151). 
Brown’s attack on public higher education today is deplorable, as is his tacit support for the privatization process that makes students pay nearly $15,000 per year to attend the institution that did not charge tuition when he was a student.  Brown might think he is calling out the UC Regents, but his actions are only playing into their hands as they push the privatization of the UC that their experience in the corporate world suggests should be run like a business rather than an institution of learning. 
When confronted about the rank hypocrisy of his destructive approach toward higher education, Brown responds with the kind of vapid homilies that have characterized his life of public disservice, and which have the commentariat snuffling, pathetically, at his feet.  “The pressure of not having enough money can force creativity that cannot even be considered”, Brown proclaimed. 
The Christian Science Monitor reported on Brown’s suggested “cost-cutting measures…upping dramatically the use of online courses, concentrating specialty courses at specialty campuses, and giving college credit for work experience”, all things designed to make UC less of a system and more of a work-house, deaf to the needs of the state community it serves, and obliging the sociopathic interests in our state which believe they have no responsibility to fund public services.
Doing his job and funding the state’s institutions apparently has not occurred to Brown…that sort of creativity and public service is evidently far beyond the realm of consideration.
Some have sought to explain Brown’s forty-year crusade against a strong public sphere in psychological terms, as a rebellion against the transformative legacy of his father who, as Governor, built much of the state’s social and physical infrastructure. 

You could arguably explain his particular hostility toward UC in a similar light.  Perhaps the man who fancies himself an intellectual seems fearful of the institution capable of calling him out on the shallowness of his thought, the paucity of his imagination, the cheap phrases he constructs to mask his embrace of right-wing sociopathy and the self-interest that have defined not only his own years in the spotlight, but also the culture that his actions over four decades have helped to create in California.


David Pierpoint Gardner, Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

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