legitimacy and the great public absence
by Kris Peterson, UC Irvine
I just finished watching a YouTube video of Regents Bonnie Reiss and Eddie Island make a quick get-a-way to their vehicle at UCLA - just after they voted to increase student fees by an unprecedented 32%. They were surrounded and followed by students chanting, “Shame on you!” Reiss represents the banking and finance industry; and Island, a retiree of McDonnell-Douglas, represents the defense industry. So, given that these two industries, with their ballooned subsidies and profits, have done nothing more than take this country down over the last several years, I’m thinking a lot about legitimacy. Not legitimacy related to governance. Rather, legitimacy in terms of representation and intent.
Let me go back in time. Between 1952 and 2007, UC had a vibrant relationship with its patron, the weapons industry. Over the years, some found this relationship egregious, as the public was concerned about nuclear proliferation and Cold War military conflicts throughout the world. Culminating in the 1970s, student protests against UC-managed Labs indexed these global events. Yet despite all this, the one thing that the weapons industry, and indeed the US military, had in common with a stellar, highly endowed, multi-campus, public university was the priority of research. Whether it was about NSEP language grants, private sector-federal government partnerships, or DOD and NSF funding that blurred the lines between foreign policy and military interests, a strong interdisciplinary research institution, writ large, was good for this industry.
But now we have a new relationship that constitutes a mix of patronage and competition. It’s been built with the finance industry, commercial real estate – Big Business generally – all of which the Regents represent. And what does the “bottom line” of these industries have in common with the project of education and research? Well, it doesn’t take much to bet up or down on whether the housing market will crash; and it doesn’t take much to figure out how student fees will secure your bond markets as Bob Meister has analyzed. The reasoning of the “bottom line” may be this: what kind of education is really needed once manufacturing and jobs have been exported? What kind of new knowledge for innovation is needed when the wealth of innovative industries has been transferred to the finance sector? What’s the role of public education for an economy that’s radically restructuring?
As we all know, state budget priorities have shifted dramatically over time. For example, Bruce Franklin has pointed out that in 1976, the last tuition-free university (CUNY) became a fee-based institution. From 1976 to 2000 - the moment when free education disappeared, on average, a new prison was constructed in the US every week - thus the extraordinary transfer of funds from education to prison budgets, as well as the extraordinary transfer of especially young Americans of Color from the potential and reality of education to prison (which could certainly increase with skyrocketing fees). Indeed, in the last few statewide cuts, the surveillance institutions sustained relatively few hits compared to the 20%-100% cuts experienced by other public services and institutions.
But I want to make a distinction here between the transfer of wealth between CA budget categories and the outright emptying out of the public sector. Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon privatization should be our guide: after Reagan inflated the national defense budget, we never really imagined that these massive sums of money could be pushed into private hands under Bush II’s pretext of war, even though by then it was a model the US (and others) provided the Third World. Yet now this model has been adopted by California. So we are no longer explicitly facing the question of entitlement to funds within limited budgets. We are now up against a competition for resources, which can be crudely drawn between the public and private sectors – with the public sector losing out. The recent CA Budget Agreements (peruse the California Budget Project for details) clearly show that while the health, education, and human services sectors are being overwhelmingly dispossessed, corporations are increasingly privileged and raking it in.
So here’s the thing with legitimacy: the Regents as a simultaneous representative of both public higher education and Big Business is a real, big, stupid problem in the context of resource struggles. The state budget decisions that screw us are the same decisions that serve the interests of the Regents. This is a conflict of interest that makes the Regents’ decisions about fee hikes and budget cuts as well as the premise of the Gould Commission completely illegitimate. Furthermore, it’s perplexing that the Regents have been put in charge of setting our future agenda. They, in fact, should be subjected to public hearings that understand their plan to eliminate the "publicness" of the UC, even prior to the budget crisis.
And certainly the absence of the Legislature is stunning - their lack of accountability, their lack of responsibility in maintaining the integrity of higher ed, and in some cases their total ignorance. One of my colleagues here at UCI met with our Assembly Rep a couple months ago to talk about the prospects of higher education in the context of cuts and new changes. The point of the meeting was to convey how once you lose infrastructure you don't really get it back. Our Rep had no idea what was at stake - I mean, remarkably and unbelievably clueless. So, the Legislature needs their public hearing too.
In addition to pressuring the Regents, I would advocate in-depth public or town hall meetings that also travel throughout the state, perhaps from one school district to the next. Other modes of public engagement are of course possible, but while current efforts are gaining lots of momentum, we need to take this crisis to the public. Senate and Assembly members, media, unions, students, parents, civic groups, PTA and local boards of education (make the K-12 link), the CSU and UC communities, and the general public should all be able to participate and discuss direct and indirect issues impacting public education and the public sector more generally. Such dialogues could look for ways to advocate for the university's and public education’s growth rather than figuring out how to pound the last nail into the coffin. Right now, our only mode of engagement (outside of protests) is with UCOF, which, if the Regents even bother showing, limits the discussion between “us and them.” This makes it a private endeavor and contributes to the ongoing absence, if not ignorance, of the public (Michael Meranze’s recent post about the public’s ideas of saving the university is telling).
While some may argue that such an endeavor is too difficult or it’s something that should happen over the longer term – well, point taken, and I certainly don’t have all the strategic answers. But honestly, can we afford to leave this in the hands of the Regents and the Legislature who don’t feel knocked around by protests and who are answerable to more powerful interests? We have a real opportunity to initiate state wide discussions on what the public sector actually is, why we need it, why it’s being taken away, and what this means for Californians – something the national health care debates failed to adequately accomplish.
As I have heard and read many good arguments about public education as a cornerstone of democracy, as an entitlement that should remain in tact, as something that shouldn’t simply provide a direct route to the market place, and as a site that enriches “hearts and minds,” I don’t think these angles alone provide the kind of sway we need. Rather, we need to examine how economic structures are transforming in ways that will restrict entitlements currently taken for granted. As economy and entitlements transform, the question of society’s knowledge, labor, and educational needs are also changing. These fast paced events are meant to fit into an economy that’s less productive and that’s being recreated by massive job and home loss. Both are shrinking the middle class – the class for which, as Chris Newfield has pointed out, higher education was meant to expand. So the argument cannot just rest with the preservation of the university for its own sake, it must argue against the very political and economic foundations driving the change. Shifting our efforts into the public realm may be our best hope.
6 hours ago