Friday, August 19, 2016

Will UC Learn from its Chancellors' Fates?

Within the past two weeks, the University of California has lost two campus chancellors to incompetence and scandal.  The reasons for and nature of their departure illustrate what hurdles the University faces in regaining public trust, but also some of ills that came about when the public forsook its responsibilities toward the world’s preeminent public university system, now significantly privatized
First out the door was UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, whose ignonimous departure has been five years in the making.  In 2011, Katehi bungled the campus’ response to peaceful protest.  In her role as custodian of students’ welfare and interest, she unleashed campus police, who famously pepper-sprayed students.  
Understandably, that and Katehi’s mangled response did some damage to her reputation.  Undeterred, she spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to scrub the internet of negative references to her tenure as Chancellor.
Apparently bored by her day job, for which she was paid over $400,000, Katehi joined the DeVry Education Group as a paid board member, lied about the timing of doing so, and added a position on the board of King Abdulaziz University to her docket to round things out.  
Although she has lost her job, Katehi will be paid $424,360 in the coming year for not serving as UC Davis Chancellor.  [Full disclosure: I wrote to the UC President offering my services as non-UC Davis Chancellor for a paltry $50,000, but received no answer.]
Next down was UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.  Unlike his predecessor, the notoriously bone-headed and tone-deaf Robert Birgeneau, Dirks did not have to deal with massive student protests, and demonstrated greater humanity and dexterity in dealing with the protests he did encounter.
But the decision to offer a pay cut rather than discipline to faculty accused of serial sexual harassment (which his boss, UC President Janet Napolitano first heard about through the news) stunk of a noxious cover-up.  Similarly, the sudden “discovery” of a $150 million per year budget deficit smacked of incompetence.  
Dirks too paid consultants (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to improve his image, and skated close to the edge with his family’s use of a campus fitness instructor.
Nor did Dirks seem entirely at ease with the students in his care.  Berkeley spent $700,000 erecting a fence around his campus residence, and the Chancellor was accused of installing an escape hatch in his office.  [To be fair, I once saw students take a makeshift battering ram to the door of California Hall.  To be fair, campus police had previously shot said students with rubber bullets and beat them with truncheons for standing peacefully with arms linked in front of a building.]
There was no word on whether Dirks, like Katehi would be paid (in his case over $500,000) to not do his job for the coming year.
The absurdity of the administrative mind--effectively walled off from the political-economy that governs the lives of students and faculty, never mind the state’s wider public--is on full display in Dirks’ and Katehi’s mishaps.  But their graceless descents from positions of power and responsibility in California’s most important state institution offer wider lessons.
Californians’ refusal to properly fund their public institutions--a trend initiated during the Reagan era and intensified from the 1990s on--led to the de facto part-privatization of UC.  With that came the prevailing private sector ethos that good leadership means obscenely compensated leadership.  This ushered in the era of sky-high pay for chancellors, the proliferation of administrators at the expense of people who do the actual work of running units and departments, and the use of bonuses.
This has made Californians less likely to contemplate increased public funding, UC’s leadership having made it clear that it has odd priorities about where that funding should be directed.  The secrecy surrounding the handling of sexual assault, the fences, escape hatches, and pepper spray do not help.
The high-powered leadership that was supposed to rescue UC from hard times has repeatedly confused the health of its reputation with the welfare of its institution.  Katehi--whether or not she violated her contract--showed a marked disinterest in her job, and demonstrated by moonlighting for DeVry and its for-profits that she has little commitment to the values of a public institution.  
Far from bringing either fiscal probity or visionary leadership to institutions, these administrators have harmed their campuses and the system by making bad judgements that increased public mistrust of public institutions.  
But they should not bear full responsibility for the harm they have done UC.  The UC Regents, who appear alongside the dictionary definition of “out of touch,” have tried to introduce corporate values to a public institution with disastrous results for UC’s relationship with the state and for relationship on campuses.  
California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, a historic UC sceptic and foe, has sought to discipline the University while dazzling slack-jawed media with a stream of mind-numbing psychobabble.  The Governor compared students who complained about $15,000/year fees to bankers asking for a golden parachute, offering them the “reality sandwich” that his generation dodged because their parents were willing to pay the taxes that his generation then repudiated.  
The failings of these two UC Chancellors illustrate the flaws at the upper levels of the University.  But they are symptoms of the Regents’ efforts to introduce corporate values to a public institution, the state’s flawed political economy, intellectually-impoverished and spineless leadership, and the disconnect between voters and their institutions.

The University should use its search for replacements to be clear-eyed about the nature of the problems it faces, and to engage with campus communities and the public to show that it actually understands why the behavior of some campus leadership is unacceptable.  
Fiat Lux.

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