Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Defending the Idea of a UC Redding

Photo by Inder Wadhwa
It has been interesting to read responses to a recent post that praised the idea—being promoted by some North State residents piggy-backing on a bill introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto—of opening a new University of California campus in Redding.  Responses combined enthusiasm, cynicism, and skepticism. 
No one was hostile outright to the idea, but a number of people, both in relation to my post, and to early reporting on Gatto’s bill, suggested either that our priorities should be elsewhere, that a new campus somehow wouldn’t achieve its mission, or that UC should be consolidating rather than expanding.
In a world where societies and polities were incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time, I would agree in principle with many of these criticisms.
Yes, if we could only do one thing for UC, I would say that building-up the campus at Merced should take priority over the construction of a new campus.  If we lived in an impoverished state without the capacity to invest or build, I would agree that expanding UC wouldn’t make much sense.  And if the only purpose of building a branch of a research-intensive university in the North State was to serve the needs of the local student population, I might be inclined to agree that such students could get the same education—and better exposure to the wider world—if they departed for campuses in the Bay Area, Southern California, or the lower reaches of the Central Valley.
But we can, if we choose, walk and chew gum at the same time, and the construction of a new University of California campus in Redding is something more than classroom for North State students—in many respects, our ability to build such a campus in the twenty-first century is an indicator of the health of our society and our democracy, and a test of whether we can, any longer, envision what it means to invest in the future.
Most opponents of a UC Redding will cite the cost, as though building a new University in the state with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and an affluent upper middle class is outrageous.  But think about what Californians have done before in their state.  In earlier generations, Californians created the Sacramento Delta, a massive engineering feat.  They constructed roads up and down and across the third largest state in the Union.  They build ten main campuses of the UC system and one of the world’s foremost medical schools in San Francisco, over 20 campuses in the California State University system, and scores of California Community Colleges.  We maintain countless elementary, middle- and high schools up and down the state.
Californians move water and power all around the state to supply the needs of its inhabitants.  They have protected vast areas of the state and scenic and recreational areas, and built a massive metropolis in Southern California where, frankly, no city of any size had any business existing from an ecological perspective.
Those things cost money.  But Californians recognized that investing in infrastructure, in the management of natural resources, in higher education, and in K-12 education, and in the creation of habitable living spaces would pay off. 
Yes, constructing a new University of California campus in Northern California would cost a great deal of money.  But it’s a drop in the bucket for a state of California’s size and wealth.
What is unrealistic is this kind of project in California’s current political environment. 
Many students find it difficult to attend Merced, and might think twice before attending an un-tested campus in Redding because of the astonishingly high tuition that UC currently demands of students.  Those students able and willing to pay for such an education or take on huge debt are likely to attend one of the larger, better-known, and so-far more prestigious campuses. 
Californians only have themselves to blame for this state of affairs.
Voters have steadily impoverished UC over the years, falling revenue and increased responsibilities having forced the University to tap into students for much of the necessary funding in the form of tuition.  Previously, the public at large, through sales, property, income and other taxes would have pitched in to pay for the education of future generations who, in turn, would have shouldered the burden for the next generation of students.
And there are administrators at UC who see an opportunity in much-degraded public support for Californians’ University.  Eager to pursue privatization, and transform UC into a business catering to customers rather than an institution of learning educating students, some administrators have shrugged off falling public support, and pursue higher tuition and private funding sources, in spite of the fact that the former compromises UC’s public mission and the latter compromises the integrity of its research endeavours.
To build UC Redding, to fill UC Merced, and to make UC a realistic proposition for California’s students, the state needs to reform its political structure in a way that makes it possible to reclaim UC for Californians from the corporate-minded administrators who would change its character.
The state should increase its funding for the institution dramatically (funding has been cut drastically over the years, even as more and more students have entered the system), building the new campus, and bringing down the obscene tuition that, even with generous financial aid packages, remains a formidable barrier to students, particularly the student populations surrounding Merced and our hypothetical Redding campus.
The future leaders, scientists, educators, engineers, labourers, and thinkers of the state should not have to gamble with enormous student debt for an education that in many other countries is more akin to a right for the qualified than the “privilege” of the elite it is in danger of becoming in the U.S.
To increase revenue, Californians would have to modify their tax structure, too dependent on the marginal incomes of top earners, and therefore fluctuating with the economic fortunes of the state’s highest earners.  This means tackling Proposition 13, the source of two ills in our state.
Firstly, Prop 13 requires a supermajority to raise taxes.  This is undemocratic and wrong—a mere majority is required to lower taxes.  And in a state growing in population and in demographic complexity, this undemocratic supermajority requirement has put the state on a de facto autopilot course towards austerity, a policy approach that hurts the working and middle class, while leaving the rich, who can send their kids to private schools, private universities, and get the most expensive medical care in their parallel universe, comparatively unaffected.
Secondly, Prop 13 takes property taxes—in many successful states, a key source of flexibility in managing revenue streams—off the table by fixing increases, failing to distinguish between individual homeowners and corporate property-owners, and allowing successive generations to pay protected tax rates without reference to their need for special protections. 
Revisiting Prop 13—and some facets of California’s initiative system in general—doesn’t mean piling new burdens onto the working class.  It means ensuring that those with wealth are unable to dodge their responsibilities, that inherited wealth isn’t protected, that a majority of our citizens can make decisions about taxing and spending, and yes, sometimes that many Californians might have to pay a little more, in the realizing that they will save later, when those investments pay off.
The construction of a UC Redding is therefore contingent on our state’s population—including the traditionally-conservative population in the North State who would benefit most directly from it—re-thinking the relationship between the individual and society, a relationship which has been corroded in recent years by deep cynicism, structural ills in our politics, and pledge-taking, oath-swearing representatives who have committed themselves to absurdly inflexible voting regimens, irrespective of the needs of their constituents, their communities, and their regions.
Building a UC campus in the North State would be about a number of things.
It would be about proving that as a state community, Californians are still capable of walking and chewing gum, of recognizing the needs of their state and acting on that recognition.
It would be about a reclamation of the public character of UC for the state’s youth from the damage done by decades of divestment by Californians and the cynical maneuvers of administrators and politicians ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jerry Brown. 
It would be about providing a point of access for students and community members in the North State to the wider world, in cultural, economic, social, and political terms.  The region’s politics, stoked by cynical and hypocritical representatives, is deeply cynical, and the public there feels a strong sense of alienation from California’s wider civic project.
Residents already have access to the same public goods enjoyed by other Californians, but geography, larger economic shifts, and manipulative political representation mean that the region is poor, that its residents face significant economic hurdles, and that California’s civic institutions can feel distant and removed.
Clark Kerr, perhaps UC’s most visionary leader, once declared that “When the borders of our campus are the boundaries of our state, the lines dividing what is internal from what is external become quite blurred; taking the campus to the state brings the state to the campus”. 

Constructing a UC Redding would blur those lines in more ways than one, reinvigorating both the North State in particular, and reaffirming Californians’ capacity to imagine and build in a manner commensurate with its population and potential. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Correcting Some Misconceptions About Higher-Ed in California

I received the following from a slightly distressed reader in response to a recent post about higher education in California.  Worried that my frustrated correspondent might be expressing views shared by other readers, I thought I would provide his comments (with the profanity ‘bleeped’), and my response below.  This didn’t seem the time or place to address the misconceptions about President Obama’s future political ambitions, so I let that particular expression of ignorance slide.  (For those interested in learning more about the political economy of the UC, here is an old post that might be of interest: http://californiamwananchi.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-political-economy-of-university-of.html)
“While an advanced educational institution could greatly benefit the north state's "community" of which republicans contribute positively your arguments an assertions show your partisan ignorance of reality and make you completely un credible.
“you write " for know-nothing, anti-communitarian Republicans to serve the region so poorly if they were also charged with looking after such a vital and vibrant institution."
“Know NOTHING? Anti community? A blatant lie. And in case you were born too recently the financially failing institutions that are the UC campuses are simply breeding grounds for group think liberalism to which you obviously and ignorantly subscribe to. You are quite obviously devoid of critical thinking skills and swayed by emotive illogical rhetoric based on hyperbole to the detriment of real broad based understanding.
“Liberalism and democratic control over education has led to the US dropping in rank continuously for decades. It is the fault of liberal democrats who cater to union thuggery where merit is last and tenure reigns supreme. As such we get shitty teachers who never get fired and new blood that get fired first. Tenure is for lazy assholes. Meritocracy is the  way and liberal democrats want nothing to do with any kind of meritocracy because it eliminates victimhood as a political basis for engendering votes. Liberal democrats blindly support the very practices that make our kids less capable while continuously advocating policy that rewards failure. There is a trillion plus in student debt because of liberals and over 60% will default. Another nice addition to the 18 trillion and counting of debt that obozo tripled in 6 years
Dear XXXX,
Many thanks for your thoughtful e-mail and commitment to civic discourse...always much appreciated.
I thought I'd just offer a couple of correctives.
The fortunes of UC began to suffer reversals when Ronald Reagan became Governor.  He actually campaigned against UC, tried to sell off its collection of historic books, accused faculty and students of being anti-American (because they questioned the Vietnam War, segregation, and other ills of that era), and fired its visionary Chancellor who had helped to build the system into a globally-recognized system of higher education.  Reagan encouraged his Republican colleagues--previously well-dispoed to UC--to engage in vapid anti-intellectualism.  He cut funding at a time when UC was being asked by the state to take more students, and introduced tuition.  
His successor, Jerry Brown, continued the trend of treating UC and the research it does--research in the social and human sciences, in biology, medicine, engineering, computer science...nothing to do with partisan politics--as an elitist indulgence.  You can see that in his dismissiveness of its mission today (in stark contrast to his father, who was one of UC's greatest supporters).
The passage of Prop 13--whereby one generation of voters rigged the tax system and political structure so that it would become incredibly difficult for future generations to raise taxes, although cutting them is easy--and a series of other initiatives which have tied the hands of voters and given the Republican Party control over the state even though it wins a small minority of seats in the state legislature, has ensured that funding for UC has continued to fall even as its research projects have expanded, the state's population has exploded, and its student body has grown.  Tuition has risen precipitately, from being free in 1970 to somewhere on the order of $15,000 today.  
This has nothing to do with "liberalism and democratic control over education", and has nothing to do with "union thuggery".  Tenure protects faculty from being fired because they do research that politicians or administrators don't like.  It has to do with ensuring people's job security.  The student debt you cite has to do with right-wing politicians refusing to fund our public institutions, which has meant the transfer of responsibility for their support from the community as a whole to those individual students and their parents...that sounds pretty anti-community to me.  If I’m not mistaken, much of our debt as a nation has a little something to do with the obscenely expensive war in Iraq that one George W Bush put on the national credit card.
Thanks again for your thoughtful comments, and I appreciate how you really toned it down after your e-mail about immigration.
Best wishes,

Jeff Schauer

Bernie Sanders is No Extremist

In 2011, our country was in the grips of an economic crisis.  The vast extent of inequality was being publicized by the grassroots ‘Occupy’ movement like never before.  Police forces across the country were conscripted into the service of the 1%, attacking peaceful demonstrators, and the political right flayed democratic protestors in the press, accusing them of being dirty “takers” and “scroungers”, desperate to keep the focus away from the resonating message of the movement and its handful of high-profile supporters.
Critics of the 1%, the corporate takeover of U.S. politics, and of gross inequality had to contend with hostility not just from the Republican Party.  Hillary Clinton, in well-paid speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs, dismissed concerns about the state of economic and political life in the U.S. as unproductive and foolish.
That is perhaps unsurprising given the record of defense for Wall Street Clinton built while representing New York in the Senate.  It might also be unsurprising given her sympathy with dictatorial regimes across the Middle East, whose parasitical leaders suck the life blood from the labour of their citizens much as the elites do in the United States.
Clinton’s neo-liberalism has been on display in her backing for the TPP, the Pacific-region deal which is bad for labour rights, environmental regulation, human rights, and democracy given the power it hands to corporate adjudicators. 
Hillary Clinton attended several fundraisers, touring the elite residences of San Francisco—a city that might symbolize the divide between the haves and have-nots.  Ordinary Californians, who would not recognize themselves in the circles where Clinton raised cash, were not on the agenda.
If Hillary Clinton was the only candidate contesting the Democratic Primary, this would be a depressing state of affairs indeed.  Voters, one would hope, would be dismayed at the prospect of having to settle for a war-mongering, corporate-minded candidate, beholden to corporate donors who clearly expect something in return from their investment.
But fortunately, Hillary Clinton is only the deeply-unserious challenger to a candidate who has much more substance and a much better track-record when it comes to representing the middle- and working-class. 
Clinton tiptoes around the issues, waiting until they have been tested to death by pollsters before producing a statement written by enough political hacks to go some distance towards addressing unemployment numbers.  Bernie Sanders, the leftist Senator from Vermont, has no such qualms, and has built a campaign around denouncing the inequality which characterizes our society.
Sanders is happy to be described as a democratic socialist or a social democrat, and unafraid of committing to use taxation to redistribute the wealth which has become so badly skewed toward the top in the U.S.  He has called for a return to top marginal tax rates from the era when “radical, socialist Dwight Eisenhower was president”, recognizing that in another era, under a top tax rate more than double what millionaires and billionaires pay today, businesses still made profits, and the country built much of the material and social infrastructure that has sustained us to this day.
Such infrastructure—both physical and welfare—is in need of overhaul, and Sanders is prepared to mount a campaign to rebuild our crumbling highways and expand our neglected transit system, while also investing in higher education and healthcare.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clinton feels threatened by this unashamed social democracy, and her minions—and the Clintons have an abundance of such hangers-on, eager to wield the knife in exchange for the favour of our country’s political royalty—have been attacking Sanders. 
ClaireMcCaskill was amongst the most prominent of Clinton’s supporters to attack Sanders, calling him “extreme”, “against trade”, and arguing that “It’s not unusual for someone who has an extreme message to have a following”.
The bewildering “trade” comment is presumably a reference to Sanders’ opposition to the TPP, a deal which could take individual nations’ control over labour, environmental, and human rights policy, and hand that control to corporate entities. 
The comments about Sanders’ “extremism” are also curious.  McCaskill, after all, is defending Clinton, a candidate who has taken enormous sums of money from a Wall Street crowd that has introduced an extreme degree of inequality into the U.S. through its speculation and lobbying.
Clinton backs Israeli colonialism and the extreme violence that goes along with it.  She backed the illegal, immoral, and downright stupid U.S. war on Iraq, which created ISIS, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, thousands of U.S. citizens, and will cost our country trillions of dollars.
Sanders’ “extreme” vision is the form of political, social, and economic organization in which hundreds of millions of other people around the world—who generally enjoy healthier lives, better services, and a greater degree of security than U.S. citizens—exist. 

Claire McCaskill’s comments were extremely stupid, and Clinton is extremely na├»ve if she thinks her extremely poor record is going to sail past the public without scrutiny, challenge, and hopefully defeat.  Sanders is no kind of extremist.  In most countries where political power has not yet been purchased by the plutocrats, he would be a middle-of-the-road political figure, preaching common sense rather than the swivel-eyed demagoguery and economic fundamentalism promoted by the Republican Party and indulged by the likes of Hillary Clinton. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

I Like the Sound of "UC Redding"

I recently stumbled across a petition that caught my eye.  It is advocating for the creation of a University of California science, technology, engineering, and mathematics campus in Redding.  For those who do not know, Redding, situated in Shasta County, is the largest city in California north of Sacramento.  It is also the city where I was born, and the nearest city to the small town where I spent the first 18 years of my life.  I think the idea of a University of California campus in northern California is a very good one, and was happy to add my name to the petition.
The petition’s authors point out that Redding once lost out as the site for the creation of the first UC campus of the twenty-first century to Merced.  That made sense at the time: Merced is located in the Central Valley, a much more populated region of the state, and also amongst the poorest regions in the country.
But there is no UC campus north of Davis.  There are two California State University campuses north of Sacramento—in Chico and Humboldt—but the CSU system is a different beast, with less emphasis on research, fewer advanced degrees, less prestige, and less ability to revitalize a region of the state that has more than its share of poverty and economic travails.
There are two ideas to tackle.  Firstly, the issue of a new UC campus, and what such a campus might look like.  And secondly, the issue of placing one in the north state.
The latter makes a great deal of sense.  While the population is not booming, there is clearly demand in the region for an institute of higher education that offers research opportunities.  The construction and maintenance of such an institution could create much needed jobs in the North State, and the presence of a research institution could mean more attention to the economic, social, and environmental issue facing the region. 
Northern California has suffered from abysmal representation at the state and federal level.  It might be more difficult, however, for know-nothing, anti-communitarian Republicans to serve the region so poorly if they were also charged with looking after such a vital and vibrant institution.  And north state residents might develop a greater appreciation for the transformative potential of public institutions if one of the state’s preeminent institutions was located in their midst.
The petition points out that Northern California’s students would benefit from access to a UC campus.  But the truth is, just as all Californians, including those in the north state, benefit from world-class universities in Davis, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Merced, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Irvine, Riverside, San Diego, and San Francisco, all Californians would have much to gain from an additional campus located in Redding.
Northern California is a stunningly beautiful place, with abundant lakes and rivers, magnificent mountains and volcanic activity, immense forests, an impressive coastline, and the upper reaches of the Central Valley.  Such a location would attract students from across the state, and the proximity to such varied natural terrain might well lend itself to top-tier research in traditional and emerging STEM fields.
If one reason that I think a “UC Redding” would be a great thing has to do with my attachment to the region, the other has to do with my attachment to the institution.  I am a UC alum, having spent four years at UC Irvine and six years at UC Berkeley.  This extraordinary institution and two of its beautiful, stimulating campuses, historically sustained by the citizens of California, was my home for ten wonderful years.  It supported me, challenged me, gave me the time and the space and the tools to think.  It exposed me to fields of inquiry I never knew existed, sent me around the world, and sent me to a new university to try to do a little for my students of what it did for me.  Leaving UC was amongst the most difficult things I’ve done, but is also crucial, because everyone deserves to spend some time in such an environment, and because the sense of belonging to a larger world of free and disciplined thought never disappears.
UC allowed me to meet people from around the state, around the country, and around the world who were studying and making striking advancements in addressing the most burning problems—whether environmental, economic, social, philosophical, political, or technological.
And it allowed me to meet people asking questions about human or scientific problems which today seem quixotic but will tomorrow seem urgent because of the prescience of those questions and the freedom such an institution gives people to ask them.  UC is a model of a university that is of the world, rather than standing apart from it.
California needs more of its students in higher education, and it needs them not just in the fields of the moment, but in all of those disciplines which combined equip us to assess and address our needs and condition. 
For this reason, I think that a “UC Redding” should not be a STEM campus, but should embrace the range of disciplines, traditional and otherwise, that concern our human condition. 
Today, UC faces incredible challenges.  California’s citizens—many of whom attended UC for free or close to it—have forgotten what it takes to maintain our great universities.  They, our Governor, and the Republican Party are attempting to make UC a leaner, meaner, less hospitable, more expensive, and more utilitarian place.  They have violated the social contract between one generation and the next, that requires people to look at our community through a wide-angle lens rather than a keyhole, and understand how they and those who come after them will benefit from their investments in education, in research, and in free thought.
Taking advantage of this neglect, UC is now run by cadres of corporate-minded bureaucrats who want to slowly privatize the UC so that it will be open only to those who can pay.  Its horizons will shrink as it caters to the short-term needs of industry rather than the long-term needs of our state, national, and world community.  And students will find it more difficult to see the beauty of free inquiry that the UC offers as they are funneled towards “practical” degrees that will earn them the kind of salaries they need to pay off massive student debt.
Building a UC Redding could mark the start of a new era for the UC.  If Californians put their mind to it, they could construct a beautiful new campus in the North State which could revitalize a marginalized region.  They could commit themselves to bulldozing the barriers to access in the form of obscene tuition levels that they have constructed during some dark years.  And they could recapture the dream of an institution dedicated toward serving the public through teaching, research and activism.
I’d urge you to sign the petition and think about what the University has done for the state and could do for Northern California.

Fiat Lux.