Friday, May 6, 2016

The Politics of a UC Redding

Last week, the leader of California’s most important and valuable public institution spent a day in Redding.  University of California President Janet Napolitano spoke with community leadership and a more public audience at various venues in the largest Californian city north of Sacramento.  Thanks to the work of community organizers and advocates, Napolitano could not avoid the question of whether an additional UC campus might someday be in the works, and whether such a campus could be built in Redding.
Proponents of a UC Redding have pointed out that a campus in the North State would not only create links between a somewhat isolated and marginal region and the larger state community.  A campus would also provide an economic boost to the enervated communities north of the capital.  And given UC’s own argument that there are a shortage of places in relation to demand, a UC Redding would create “seats” while ticking a couple of these other boxes.
I have not always been a fan of Janet Napolitano’s stewardship of UC.  I think she has over-indulged the apparently legal if highly unethical behavior of some campus leadership.  I think she could have resisted the corporatization of UC by those parasitic members of the Board of Regents who focus their energies on trying to pay competitive salaries to a cadre of administrators without recognizing that their poor priorities will lead to a loss of trust and therefore of funding for the UC.  And I think Napolitano--like many Californians--underestimated myopia of Governor Jerry Brown, who has equated affordable tuition for California’s students with a Wall Street bailout.
But I think she has made a decent job of the lousy climate she inherited.  And precisely because of her own political background, Napolitano grasps that at heart, UC’s dilemma is a political one.  Her answer to UC Redding advocates demonstrated as much.  She discussed the transfer pipeline, the Blue & Gold financial aid program, and distance opportunities, all of which could take North State students to the UC without a new campus.  But she was also clear about the barrier to UC Redding advocates’ vision: “Until the University receives full state funding for the existing 10 campuses...another brick-and-mortar campus still lies in the future.”
This was a useful dose of realism for the Redding and northern California community.  The construction of a UC Redding will require not only strong and smart and consistent advocacy, but also a recognition of the cultural and political changes that are necessary for UC and the state to contemplate opening a new campus.
State funding for UC has declined steadily relative to the number of students and remit of the University for forty years.  The balance of the cost has been transferred onto the shoulders of students and their families.  It would be irresponsible for UC to open a new campus until that decline is reversed or at least arrested.  Hence Napolitano’s focus on consolidation at Merced rather than expansion in Redding.
For a UC Redding to emerge, we need to see some big changes in the political economy of our state.  Supermajority rules about revenue (with origins in Prop 13) have put our state--with its expanding and ever more complex population and demographics--on autopilot toward austerity.  My personal view is that major changes will have to wait until Jerry Brown leaves office.  Brown has described his philosophy as “creative inaction,” hardly a recipe for reinvigorating our state and its institutions.
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is a likely candidate for the state’s executive leadership in two years’ time, and of all the members of the Board of Regents has proven himself most committed to defending the public, ambitious, and affordable version of UC that Brown’s father built in the 1960s.  I would hope that his candidacy--and that of other statewide leaders--would provide an opportunity to think about what it takes to reinvest in UC and regain control over its mission.
But should such a revitalization occur, and should Redding and the North State aspire to capitalize on it for the region, change needs to occur at the regional as well as the state level.  It’s no secret that northern California is deeply conservative and demonstrates its scepticism of state institutions through its voting record.  Redding would have rivals on its claim to a new UC campus, and would need strong voices in the Senate and Assembly.
Even if the region’s representatives, Ted Gaines and Brian Dahle, decided to advocate for a campus in northern California, they are unlikely to win support from colleagues in central and southern California on the basis of their political hypocrisy.  After all, other state leaders would be likely to question why a region that sends two signatories of Grover Norquist’s straitjacket, anti-tax pledge--something which has historically put the brakes on state funding for state institutions like UC--should have a claim on state resources.
In other words, some of northern California’s marginalization stems from its remote location, small population, and rural nature.  But I would argue that the more significant explanations have to do with the quality and character of its representation.  The likes of Gaines and Dahle not only vote in a way that makes a UC Redding less likely.  Their votes are also going to be remembered when it comes time for state leadership to make decisions about any hypothetical requests from UC about the location of new campuses.  Their inflexibility about matters of revenue does their constituents a disservice and could imperil Redding’s ability to claim a new campus should the opportunity arise.

The long-term nature of the quest for a UC Redding will challenge the community’s commitment, and will be a test of the depth of desire for a transformative public institution to set up shop in northern California.  As a product of the region and a beneficiary of California’s extraordinary University, I hope that when good times return to California and the UC, Redding can gain.

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