Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jerry Brown's Inaugural Pays Little Heed to Higher Education

California Governor Jerry Brown offered up what we can only hope to be his final inaugural address yesterday.  Now termed out as Governor, Brown claims to be focusing his energies on cementing his legacy in the Golden State, while assorted hacks urge him to take a tilt at a presidential campaign, where his serial irresponsibility and history of eviscerating the public sphere would certainly make him welcome in a Republican Party primary.

Brown´s inaugural took place against the backdrop of a dispute with the University of California, whose President and Regents are intent on raising tuition in the coming years to counteract the decades’ long bleeding of public funding.

Brown, who has cut funding for UC and historically attacked its expansive social and economic role in the state, is opposed to tuition hikes, content as he is to keep the university impoverished and diminished, on its way to privatization.  Privatization would suit the UC Regents well enough, but at the urging of President Janet Napolitano, and for form’s sake, the corporate board is shedding some crocodile tears over the plight of the students, onto whose backs they have piled untenable debt over the past years, all the while trying to monetize and instrumentalize an institution supposedly dedicated to seeking truths and bettering the human condition.

Brown devoted a paragraph of his inaugural address to California’s higher education system, the centerpiece of the vibrant public sphere his father sought to cultivate.  And he didn’t mention any of the three tiers of that system by name, contenting himself with the banality that has characterized his hackneyed approach to politics and government over more than four decades.

Referring to what he called a “rich and diverse system”, Brown, who believes that online education is a panacea for UC’s difficulties, came down firmly against UC’s ambitions to be at the heart of the state’s social development and economic fluorescence, arguing for a leaner, meaner, less ambitious and less excellent institution.

Brown, apparently vying with the tin-eared UC Regents to determine who is more out of touch with reality and less invested in social responsibility, bleated that “affordability and timely completion” should be the priorities of the UC, adding, “I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.  To meet our goals, everyone has to do their part: the state, the students, and the professors”.  

It’s a bit late for “affordability” where UC is concerned, absent any massive effort by Californians and their government to reinvest in the public sphere.  This is particularly unlikely to occur on Brown’s watch, given his misconception that budgets are tools rather than ends in and of themselves, and his disdain for public spending.  As one UC President recalled, the 1970s version of Jerry Brown joined Ronald Reagan in attacking UC and its mission, and post 2010, the Governor has steadily undermined the integrity of the system, his cuts to its public funding forcing tuition steadily upwards.

Thanks to the actions of Brown and the Republican representatives in the state legislature, who have historically dominated the state thanks to undemocratic supermajority rules, students have long been amongst the foremost financiers of the state’s colleges and universities.  And that has occurred because the state and its citizens have refused to do their part.  State disinvestment and the irresponsible priorities of the UC Regents have forced students and faculty to do more than ever.

And Brown should understand the connection between “affordability” and “timely completion”.  His failure to maintain the former—indeed, his creation of conditions which make affordability more elusive than ever—impedes the ability of students to get through UC in a timely fashion.  Students are working more than ever to support themselves because of high tuition and cost of living, and many are forced to take leaves from the UC to shore up their resources before attempting to complete degrees that their parents or grandparents could have had virtually free of charge, but which today run to more than $30,000 per year including living expenses.

Brown’s “intellectual” credentials go unchallenged by the media and his supporters, but the man is incapable of the most elementary mental honesty which would allow him to see the connections between his Tea Party-esque view of the role of government, and the ills and travails of California’s students and universities.  

Indeed, Brown is in many ways emblematic of the generational war being waged in California and across the country.  Generations of citizens, having benefited from the largesse of a welfare state funded by previous generations—top notch schools, free and excellent universities, generous social safety nets, a vibrant public sphere, etc—are now dismantling that welfare state before future generations can benefit from it as they did.

Students, faculty, and staff at California’s universities, as well as California’s citizenry at large, should resolve to spend this and the coming years combating efforts by Jerry Brown and the state Republican Party to diminish and privatize higher education in a state long known for its preeminence in that field, and for the capacity of institutions of public higher education to transform for the better the lives of its citizens. 

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