Friday, April 15, 2016

Crisis at the University of California

Later this month, University of California President Janet Napolitano will make a visit to Redding, in the far north of California.  During her visit, she will likely encounter community members and activists who will ask her about the possibility of opening a UC campus in the region.  Advocates for a UC Redding imagine a north state campus that would not only provide an easier path to higher education for local students, but also see the potential for a university in the region to generate social and economic revitalization.
It is telling that even in deeply conservative northern California it is possible to find not just people willing to testify to the transformative effects of public higher education, but a grassroots movement that is forging connections with civic leaders to advocate for the construction of a university in their backyard out of a recognition of the role that California's universities have historically played in the state.
Napolitano makes this visit at a time when UC seems to be lurching from one crisis to another.  The system has been under-funded for decades, and its students have been under mounting strain since a vindictive Governor Reagan introduced tuition in the 1970s.  Its de facto privatization has led to strains with a state government that wants to exercise control over the institution but can't persuade the public to offer sufficient funds to give it any clout.
Californians' impression of UC is of an institution that has wandered from its path of public service and appears obsessed with growing the governing caste of administrators who appear to be singularly inept, particularly given the scale of their salaries.  And while its faculty and students and staff labor daily to maintain a reputation for world-class education, UC's administrative leadership seems flawed at virtually every level.
UC Berkeley's administration stands accused of covering up or slowing the process of investigating sexual harassment, and appears to have a double standard for handling harassment claims leveled by tenured faculty.  It’s Chancellor evidently failed to report the extent of this problem to the UC President, who had to learn about it when it hit the news.
UC Davis’ Chancellor, Linda Katehi, presided over a botched and unnecessarily violent response to student protests in 2011, a set of events which tarnished her reputation.  Her response was to spend $175,000 to “scrub the internet of negative online postings”.  “Some payments,” the Sacramento Bee wrote, “were made in hopes of improving the results computer users obtained when searching for information about the university or Katehi.”  
Not only is the effort to re-write the history of the university administration’s violent assault on students offensive, Katehi’s decision to spend large sums of money on doing so demonstrates a warped sense of priorities to students and community members.
An even more vivid illustration of Katehi’s abysmal leadership is the revelation that she earned $70,000 moonlighting on behalf of a for-profit education company that has been investigated by a U.S. Senate committee, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Attorneys General of various states.  She also earned nearly half a million dollars over several years for work on the side for a textbook company.
It’s common for people who labor for low wages to work multiple jobs, but Katehi’s UC Davis salary is $424,000.  
The UC Board of Regents has long argued that the University’s administrators need to be paid high salaries because of their brilliance and in order to attract them to work for California’s system.
But apparently neither a $420,000 salary nor the opportunity to work on an amazing campus of the world’s most extraordinary university system are enough to keep Katehi committed to UC Davis and its community of students, faculty, and staff.  What she did was apparently legal, but also so incredibly, self-evidently destructive and immoral that UC President Janet Napolitano’s decision to keep her on as Chancellor smacks of contempt for UC Davis’ community.  
That community deserves a Chancellor who gives them her undivided attention and who isn’t simultaneously beholden to for-profit education enterprises that represent values starkly opposed to those embodied by the University of California.  If UC Davis doesn’t want to have to spend money sanitizing the internet, it should fire Katehi and fire someone who isn’t going to compromise the university’s reputation and the safety of its students.
Meanwhile, UC’s budget woes have returned.  UC Berkeley is preparing to cut 500 employees from the campus’ payroll in the face of a $150 million deficit, but you can bet few if any of those employees will come from the bloated administration.  They are more likely to be the support staff that allow academic and research units to function, and their removal is likely to place greater burdens on faculty, researchers, graduate students, and remaining staff in a way that compromises the mission and work of those people.  
In its quest for reinvigoration, the University of California now faces three obstacles:
-Its own administration, which has become enamored of and invested in a de facto privatization process and which seems intent on sabotaging the administration through its absurd antics and arguments.
-State leadership, in the form of a Governor who has been a longtime foe of UC and who is committed to “fiscal responsibility” rather than social responsibility, and who persists in understanding budgets as an end rather than a means to pursuing policies and supporting institutions that do good for people.
-California’s public, which has been instructed by politicians since the days of Ronald Reagan to see UC as an extravagant institution.  While many Californians can testify first-hand to the work that UC does in educating students, providing jobs, making innovations in technology, medicine, economics, and social thought, and in acting as an “upward mobility” machine, California’s voters have failed to invest in the university.
I think we are at a moment where the public is prepared to re-commit to UC, but arguments for re-investment become almost impossible to make when the UC President and Regents prize administrative salaries over student tuition cuts, and when they defend campus leaders who are uncommitted and incompetent.
I spent ten years at two UC campuses as a student, and taught on one campus for four of those years.  To me it remains a magical, inspiring institution, that provides space for students and others to learn, explore, and think about their place in the world.  It provides an educational experience--and a reputation to match--that situate students well to enter the workforce.  And when campuses mesh with the communities around them I think we see how universities are anything but ivory towers, and are instead places that are tied in every way to the world around them.

I hope that Californians will begin to fund UC adequately.  And I hope that we can see some big changes in UC leadership to reflect the priorities of the campus and state communities.

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