Saturday, February 28, 2015

Californians Need to Accept Responsibility for their Universities

The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that “California voters overwhelming oppose a tuition increase at University of California campuses, even if that forces the colleges to cut spending or accept more out-of-state students who pay higher fees”.
The poll also discovered that Californians believe that their state “has done a poor job of making a college education affordable”, and think that California Governor Jerry Brown is correct to call out the UC Regents and UC President for their efforts to raise tuition.
The poll finds California’s voters at their most typically obtuse and obdurate.  They oppose tuition increases, but apparently don’t realize that tuition increases have been necessary over the years because they have refused to provide UC with sufficient funding, while simultaneously asking the University to strive for excellence in research and public service. 
Taking more students, and taking those students from an increasingly diverse state costs money.  Performing world class research, preserving world class faculty, and maintaining world class campuses require money.  I hope that many Californians would agree that those are worthwhile ambitions, in contrast to the state’s half-witted Governor who wants a leaner, meaner university that shoves students in and out the door, giving them a tattered product instead of a rigorous learning experience.  Brown is dismissive of the UC’s research and its capacity to transform the lives and livelihoods of Californians.  Californians, I hope, feel differently.
But if Californians agree that those ambitions are worthwhile—excellence in education and research—they have a funny way of showing it.  Older generations in particular—the very people who attended UC for free or close to it—have consistently opposed creating a tax system that would allocate sufficient funding to UC for the institution to perform its mission for subsequent generations.  Having climbed up a ladder constructed by others to a position of success or at least security, those generations are now breaking off the rungs to prevent younger Californians making the same ascent.
If the state has done a poor job of making college affordable, that is to a large degree because voters have rejected one effort after another to raise the serious kind of revenue necessary to keeping UC truly public—that is, an institution supported by the collective for the good of the state’s youth.
Voters have not hesitated to discipline legislators and Governors who have argued for the need to reinvest in our public sphere, and voters have conditioned politicians in the state to steer clear of reforming the tax system or our political structure, moves which are seen as assaults on the surplus wealth of the upper-middle classes and the affluent—the people who, having benefited from a vibrant public sphere in their youths, are now content to trash and de-fund the same sphere.
UC could certainly manage its resources more wisely.  The past years have seen the unseemly bloating of an administrative class, the primary purpose of which often seems to shoot their institution in the foot by granting themselves outrageous bonuses and pay raises at the same time that they raise tuition for students and request more funds from the state. 
The basic immorality and strategic stupidity of the market approach adopted by UC’s administration should not obscure the fact that cutting administrative salaries would not make up for the systematic shortfall in public funding the system has experienced over the years. 
Voters support Jerry Brown’s arguments about the University of California because those are arguments that let them and the Governor—long a foe of public higher education, in stark contrast to his father—off the hook for their serial irresponsibility and their failure to maintain the system of higher education that is in their trust. 
But many of those voters might support Brown because it has been so long since they have been presented with any alternatives to the smaller, crueler state that they live in today.  It has been a long time since the state experienced a political movement in favour of creating a more communitarian California, one in which citizens realize that as a matter of moral fact as well as of practicality, they have a responsibility to one another and to future generations. 

It has been a long time since the state’s leadership expressed confidence in the ability of the state government—the legislature, the executive, and the voters who exercise outsized power through the state’s initiative process—to play an active, respectful role in the lives of citizens, promoting the kinds of institutions and investments that have the potential to lead to equality and justice in California.  I see no such movements or leaders on the horizon, but students, staff, and faculty at California’s universities should be thinking about how to work with those other communities who suffer from the absence of equality and justice, and to forge such a movement, to reclaim the state’s public sphere. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

California's Students Condemn Jerry Brown's Approach to Higher-Ed

It has taken nearly five years since Jerry Brown launched his bid for his third term as Governor in 2010, but California’s students have at last identified California’s prevaricating, irresponsible executive as one of the primary stumbling blocks to the recovery of higher education in the Golden State.  The Daily Cal reported that on Sunday, “the University of California Student Association unanimously voted to pass a resolution expressing no confidence in Gov. Jerry Brown”.

According to the Daily Cal, the resolution “notes that over the last 24 years, state funding per student of the university has declined, despite inflation.  It also observes that Brown line-item vetoed $100 million toward improving infrastructure of California state schools and the UC system and that Brown supports expediting some degree programs and increasing online education”.

In addition to condemning Brown’s efforts to instrumentalise and cheapen California’s higher education system, the students might have noted Brown’s serial refusal to use the powers at his disposal to address the political and structural conditions that are driving UC towards privatization and inaccessibility. 

Like his Tea Party colleagues in Sacramento, with whom he coasted to victory in 2010, Jerry Brown regards budgeting as an ends rather than a means.  A balanced budget with minimal political risk is more important to the Governor than using that budget to improve the lives of the Californians he ostensibly serves.

Like his Tea Party colleagues in Sacramento, with whom he often has an easier relationship than with progressive Democrats, Jerry Brown took a tax pledge, tying his hands and passing the buck to voters who might have thought they elected the Governor to, well, govern.  Unlike the Tea Party cadres, who take their commands from Grover Norquist and the ghost of Howard Jarvis (two sociopathic anti-tax advocates), Brown’s half-witted pledge was self-imposed, and representative of the moral expediency with which he maneuvers around Sacramento.

 Of course, neither UC students nor the public at large, all of whom benefit from a healthy and well-funded public university system, should be surprised by Brown’s contempt for the University of California.  Like Ronald Reagan—the hero of the Tea Party, which dominates California’s politics from the minority because of undemocratic supermajority rules—Jerry Brown was extremely hostile to UC in his first two terms as Governor, leading university leadership to see little difference between the arch-Conservative and the man who likes to paint himself as a visionary progressive.

It is a pity that California’s students waited until now to take Brown to task.  Doing so during the 2014 election campaign might have forced the Governor to publicly set out his position on the future of higher education in California and made the issue a point of contention in an election that Brown won easily without deigning to lay out any plans before the public.

It is difficult to know what the most effective path forward for California’s students is at this point.  Five years ago students used protest to call attention to the UC’s plight and to force administrators to roll back plans for an unending barrage of fee increases. 

Since 2011 it has proven difficult to foster the student knowledge or generate the student interest necessary for significant or effective protest.  Letter-writing and UC-sponsored advocacy campaigns have had little impact because they make no allowance for the structural gridlock imposed by California’s mangled political structure.

A popular, committed, progressive Governor could potentially break-up that gridlock by campaigning for Democrats to help achieve legislative supermajorities, sponsoring political reform, or making a flat out push for the higher taxes necessary to make California—growing in size and demographic complexity even as its revenue stagnates—a more humane and responsible place.

Popular though he is, Jerry Brown has done none of those things, and is unlikely to do them unless California’s students and citizens put intense pressure on him and legislators, through traditional means, or through more direct action.

Today, students face an administration bent on increasing tuition unless it can persuade the intransigent Governor to send more funds to UC, a Board of Regents intent on privatization, and a Governor who simply doesn’t believe in the transformative capacity of higher education, the need to fund a system of higher education, or the need for excellence in research at a public university system.

Across the state line in Nevada, a Republican Governor is taking an alternative approach, making a concerted push for tax increases to shore up and develop the state’s education sector, recognizing the health of such a sector as intimately connected to the health of the state’s economy and society.
Governor Sandoval’s proposed taxes are nowhere near the most progressive in the world, and he faces stiff opposition from the demented fringe of the Republican Party, but on the issue of education, he is proving himself more progressive than California’s slack-jawed, idle-minded Governor, who ascribes to a policy of “Creative Inaction”. 

California has taken about all that it can of the Governor’s irresponsibility, and I hope that others will join with California’s university students in condemning Brown’s cynical and right-wing approach to some of the public institutions that can do the most good for the state.