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. 

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