By Michael Meranze
“And what is wrong, again, is the whole system of values—the entire ordering of human priorities—of this insistent managerial propaganda. It is sad to see even the scholars themselves hesitate in their work and wonder about the use of what they are doing. Even they begin to feel, defensively, that a salesman or an advertising executive is perhaps a more important and productive human being than an actor, or a designer, or a teacher of English.”
The November regents meeting revealed many things. It demonstrated, once again, the fundamental lack of connection between UCOP and the Regents on the one hand and students and the Campuses on the other. It demonstrated a growing if still relatively small student movement within the UC. And it also demonstrated that the relationship of faculty to that movement remains profoundly unclear and ambivalent. This ambivalence is clearest regarding tactics like the occupations of buildings (a tactic that obviously splits the faculty itself) but that also has to be confronted on the terrain of our understanding of what the University is, what it should be, and what possibilities there are to protect it. I fear that in the day-to-day planning and responding we are losing sight of what “university” we are talking about in the chanting of “Whose University, Our University?”
Bob Samuels has recently suggested that there are two narratives struggling for dominance in understanding the University’s fiscal crisis. On the one hand, are those who want to insist that the crisis is in Sacramento and that the struggle should focus there, while on the others there are those who insist (as does Bob) that the first struggle should be against UCOP and the Regents because they have more resources than they admit and the problem is a question of priorities. Bob is being provocative here—he knows perfectly well that there is a third narrative: that there is a crisis of state funding and that the Regents and UCOP have contributed to that crisis by their willingness, in some cases eagerness, to allow the funding basis of the University to shift from the State to students and private sources. This last narrative is, of course, more pessimistic than Samuels’ (we would need to prepare for a longer-term transformation of the University and we would have to acknowledge that without a change in the state we will be dealing with budget pressures for a long time).
But despite this pessimism, I would argue that not only is the third narrative the most persuasive but that it is the only narrative that will allow us to raise a crucial additional issue: what do we think, outside of the argument about the fiscal crisis, the University really is? The first narrative presumes that the state is simply at fault and all we need to do is to get funding back. The second narrative, unintentionally of course, mirrors President Yudof’s language about the centrality of UC “businesses.” The first narrative allows the faculty to avoid accepting responsibility for what UC has become; the second narrative effectively reduces it to its money flows and money management. The third narrative on the other hand will force us to decide what we think that the University should be as a university in order to resist the efforts by UCOP and UCOF to remake the University on managerial terms under the pressure of the budget crisis.
I would also argue that the same dichotomy present in Bob’s two narratives is also a part of the confusions over protest tactics. Clearly, if you accept that our problems are all Sacramento’s fault then there is no real point in protesting against UCOP or the Regents. To be honest, I don’t see this as a serious position (I am happy to be disabused). The recent history of UCRP, the unbelievably disproportionate growth of administrative positions, the Regents complicity in the “Compact” and their continued defense of the Governor, as well as the way that UCOF has been set up to favor the professional school model and to ignore the humanities and social sciences makes the notion that we should ignore UCOP and the Regents slightly bizarre. Moreover, the supine nature of the system-wide Academic Senate reveals that our own institutional agents are part of the internal problems we face. In that sense, blaming Sacramento alone allows the faculty to overlook the ways that we have ceded too much control to the administration (over several decades admittedly) and also the way that faculty who are concerned about the shape of the University today have allowed our own faculty institutions to slip into the hands of those closer to the perspective of the administration than to us.
But the narrative of the Occupations would demand a surrender of the University as well. When the cry of “demand nothing” goes up it is, strictly speaking not true. They are demanding the right to seize space, to force others to accommodate them, and to disrupt the daily flow of the University. More conventional protests do that as well, of course. But what gives the call for occupying buildings and to demand nothing its rhetorical and polemical force is the picture it paints of the university—as an appendage of Capital and the police state. As the “Communiqué from an Absent Future” put it: "The university has no history of its own; its history is the history of capital. Its essential function is the reproduction of the relationship between capital and labor.” But to put things this way is to ignore history and not even correctly understand the present. The university is older than the dominance of capital, and as an institution it retains traditions and practices that cannot be reduced to capital. To reduce the university in the way of the Communiqué is, like the managerial ethos, to reduce it to its utility to capital. It is to ignore the practices of curiosity, of communication, of self-formation, of deepening engagement with thought that, however much they are devalued in the larger world are essential aspects to any social change or even human life.
My sense from down south is that here the occupations have not generated much notice or sympathy amongst the wider public. I see a lot of sympathy (within limits) for the students facing a rise in fees who protested in defense of their access to education (mixed with some hostility because everyone is suffering). But down here the one occupation attempt didn't get much press and caused I think a good deal of internal strife amongst the students.
But even that is not the fundamental point. I don't think that the university is simply a tool of the police state and capital. It has a long and varied history that needs to be drawn upon and articulated at least as much for ourselves and our students as for the public. In the insistence that it is really a business that gets lost. I think that beyond the danger of people getting hurt, the loss of a sense of a university is one of the big dangers about the way that some of the debate and protest has been proceeding. I worry that we are running around like people with fingers in the dike trying to patch up this and that but losing sight of what we think UC should be. I am romantic enough to believe that the University should be run by something other than the rules of capital and the market and that it can do so. I recognize that the UC system was created in a different moment of political economy but that does not mean it isn’t worth defending. I think that we have over time lost the ability to defend what we do and to imagine what we want the University to be (this is especially the case at places like LA and Berkeley given their size). Indeed, I would say that it is, at least in part, this lack of a vision as well as our abdication of oversight over administration that has allowed the different sectors of the faculty to be in competition with each other over resources. We don’t see how we fit together (and on a purely material basis we don’t understand the mutual dependence when it comes to funds).
If we want to articulate a meaningful alternative, though, we will have to put forth our own version of use and usefulness. In the new battle of the books we will be arguing not about the ancients versus the moderns or the humanistic versus the scientific disciplines (although those arguments will go on) but between the books of the scholars and the books of the accountants. On the one hand, we will have to show, as Chris Newfield has argued on various occasions, that the very economic models that the Regents and UCOP are putting forth won’t work at the UC or the CSU. The notion that fees and private donations can supply the funds necessary to educate the number of students we teach without eliminating the poor and middle-class is nonsense. Private schools may be able to do that but their scale is so much smaller than ours as to be irrelevant. Ann Arbor may have sacrificed its public funding but at the same time Michigan citizens have sacrificed their access.
But beyond the financial, the business university with its values presses against the values of the scholar’s university. This point, I think, is a tricky one. The public, understandably, wants to know what they are getting out of the University. As I have suggested elsewhere if student fees increase and the University becomes more exclusive the public will withdraw its support even further than it has up till now. But the fact remains that much of what we do depends on suspending the immediacy of the present—even when it is most problem-centered it is in the gap between the given and the imagined that insight flourishes—and that this aspect of our work is hard to explain and communicate effectively. Humanistic education, at its best, provides students and society with worlds (both past, imaginary, and distant) that are not their own; social scientific education, at its best, provides students and society with ways to conceive of problems that escape from the given logics of the day; scientific education, at its best, allows students and societies ways of bracketing out the everyday in order to better understand the material world that we all inhabit. In all cases, it is the suspension of the immediate and the possibility of the creative and contested communication of ideas that makes knowledge and understanding possible. It cannot be predicted in advance nor confined to a given product or utility. The problem with seeing the University as a business or as a tool of capital is that it misses the day to day work that everyone actually does. Instead of allowing the University to be remade in the terms of narrow utility we need to insist that it deepen its commitment to the democratic exchange of ideas both in terms of developing solutions to problems in society, in developing individuals who seek out further opportunities for public and intellectual engagement with society, and in developing individuals whose curiosity and inquiry reshapes themselves. But we don’t have, or haven’t articulated, a good language for this—either to ourselves or to others.
That we all have allowed ourselves to be confined within increasingly narrow intellectual limits and failed to effectively converse across the university about the university and what we do is one of our major intellectual weaknesses in the face serial crises that confront us all. There is a difference between this suspension of immediacy and esotericism for its own sake. We need to make that difference clear.
The Regents, UCOP, and the Academic Senate have no vision of a genuine University as far as I can see. We need to articulate that ourselves. It may make no difference. But if we don’t do it someone else will—and we won’t like the outcome.
6 hours ago