Last Stand at UC

I’ve been inclined to agree with Joe Mathews that University of California students who vent their wrath at the university and the Regents have picked the wrong targets. The retreat from funding public higher education has been sounded from the state Capitol. It is the combination of the state’s broken governing system and the political weakness and incompetence of the state’s higher education leaders that has made colleges and their students into the biggest losers in California’s budget squeeze. As Joe points out, tents on the quad and protests at Regents meetings speak to the wrong audience and the wrong problem.

But that’s not the whole story. Watching UC chancellors respond to the Occupy protests, I’ve come to see that the students are not entirely wrong. Something’s rotten inside the university too.

How else to explain the response of the university administration? If it were truly concerned to restore public funding and protect the public character of the University of California, why has it not, over the past two years, treated the anger of students over tuition increases as a political asset? Why did it not see the students as allies, unruly and difficult perhaps, but allies nonetheless?

Instead of holding out an open hand to student activists, the administration responded with billy clubs and pepper spray. Protest against economic inequality and the degradation of public services has proven as unwelcome in front a UC administration building as it is on Wall Street.

Why? Here the students understand something important. The modern university does not stand apart. It reproduces the real world, in which the spoils flow almost entirely to the top 1%.

In the campus version, the 1% is the peripatetic class of college administrators, flitting about the country, without roots or allegiance to place, chasing the next mid-six-figure payday from the CEO-investor types who infest the governing boards of the nation’s colleges.

To this 1%, declining state support for UC, though a financial challenge in the short run, represents a kind of opportunity. The state delivers just one relatively small and dwindling stream of the revenue needed to support what has become a multi-line corporate enterprise supplying research, research management, medical care, publishing, graduate and professional training, sports and cultural entertainment—and, when time allows, undergraduate instruction and public service. But even as the dollars dwindle, the obligations and scrutiny those public dollars bring do not.

Those state dollars define the “public” character of the university (I don’t count here the role of the Regents who, because they are appointed to 12-year terms and are politically accountable to no one, are about as public as a country club). The public dollars give students the right to be treated as full members of the university community—as citizens, not just as customers. They license outside critics like Peter Schrag to prod the university toward new ways of educating the next generation. They are, in many respects, a pain in the ass for the people who run the enterprise.

Without them, in the “privatized” or “hybrid” university that seems the preferred destination for UC’s leadership, a lot of the problems that now afflict UC’s 1% disappear.

Mark Yudof

The press and public would lose their right to scrutinize the out-sized pay and benefit packages lavished on UC administrators; compensation would be a matter to be decided solely by the log-rolling of the interconnected elites that have allowed the top 1% to loot their institutions—corporations, newspapers, nonprofits, you name it—everywhere across the country.

When state dollars go away, the self-dealing Regents will no longer have to worry about the handful of busybodies who tried, without much success, to interest the mainstream media in their practice of steering UC investments into their own private deals.

The odor of corruption that followed UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi from her old job—a University of Illinois admissions office she supervised granted admissions to unqualified students sponsored by politicians and others with clout—would evaporate; in a privatized university that would be considered smart business.

UC would be free, like its private cousins, to sell admission to the highest-paying customers from around the world, to offer its research services and academic prestige to corporations and oil princes, and enjoy the prestige of being one of America’s successful exporters. And it would no longer have to pay attention to state legislators making occasional noises about UC’s public service duties or its implicit promises to the children of San Leandro or Fullerton.

That version of the university would have all the characteristics of the other institutions championed and directed by the 1%: It would be too big to fail, too systemically important to be saddled with regulation and petty concerns about the public, and accountable to no one.

Linda Katehi

That is what makes the internal struggle at the University of California important. The students and faculty members who rail against Mark Yudof and Robert Birgeneau and Linda Katehi for sins of commission and omission in unloosing police violence against peaceful speech on campus are trying to do what no one else has managed to do in America: to hold some members of the 1% accountable for the harm they have done to our economy and democracy.

It would be a small thing, and it would not address the central governing failure in California.

But it would be good to be able to say that here in California, at a university that championed the idea of universal and affordable public education, the next generation of the 99% made a last stand, and prevailed.