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Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Looking Back and Looking Forward

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.”
--E.P. Thompson

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.


Anonymous said...

There is a 4th narrative that bloggers here ignore in a fantastic way:

The United States is in an economic crisis bigger than any since the Great Depression.

That economic crisis is comprised of massive financial swindling, gargantuan financial and consumer debt as a strategy to mask over de-industrialization and over-production and massive structural dislocation.

And the economic crisis is also bound up with a larger crisis of imperial over-stretch and decline, otherwise known as Iraq and Afghanistan under American occupation.

This 4th narrative also points the direction for effective politcal action. The State of California is, in effect, a side show and an epiphenomenon.

The State can't deficit spend. The State can't print money. The State's ability to float bonds is near the sinking point. And the State's political system is Constitutionally broken.

The Federal govt has pursestrings that can be flexed. The Federal govt can exert leverage on California. The most fundamental problem of offering affordable higher education is a national problem, not just a California problem.

There's a 5th narrative, too, though in an order of magnitude and priority it should come before UCOP, as the smallest issue, but one that is ignored at our peril. All of UC - faculty, students, and (less so) staff - bear some small share of the blame.

We just saw a mini lesson in the peril's of faux innocence in the tempestuous besmirching of David Theo Goldberg, UCHRI, and the whored out Humanities faculty at UCLA.

This is a major structural crisis of the entire political economy, folks, not a fit of personalities in conflict, not a unique campaign against the UC system.

Anonymous said...

Great piece; unfortunately, despite its long history, most of the university HAS in fact already been transformed into the R & D branch of Capital. The only place in the university that this gets regularly questioned is, for the most part, in the Humanities and Social Sciences, sectors that have been marginalized from the running of the university for some time now. Most of the rest of the university is already "privatized" and has been for years. By and large, folks in the professional schools not only have no problem with what is happening at UC but think that it is probably a good thing. The Humanities and Social Sciences are tolerated, but only because they are not part of the power structure or decision making of the university. I work at a UC, and faculty outside of the Humanities and Social Sciences have active disregard for these branches of the university and routinely dismiss them. The beast has been within the gates for some time now, and I'm sorry to say, it doesn't listen much to History Professors.

Charles Schwartz said...

For one attempt to plan a better future for UC, involving new demands upon the UC administration as well as more balanced requests to the citizens of California, please see my latest post at
and, yes, this will also challenge my faculty colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Meranze's post argues forcefully for a historical and conceptual perspective on the University that allows for robust debate on what the value of research and education beyond the confines of "narrow utility." Anonymous #1 reminds us that the scale of the crisis is so great that we cannot even begin to contemplate what the consequences of massive deindustrialization and financialization of GDP can mean...I think that both these points of view have enormous value. And I agree that we should all take a share of the responsibility for the crisis at hand. In the late 1980s, Stuart Hall wrote that the Labour Left had been led, under pressure from the radical right to give up on comprehensive education for something called "academic excellence." According to Hall, the Right took charge of the discourse of education and reframed it in the language of crisis. We have accepted the empty monikor of excellence as our own..and lost sight of our own core values.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Very timely! I don't like the split infinitives, though. What is "to effectively converse"? How about "to converse effectively"?

Bob Samuels said...

Michael, Thanks for your excellent analysis, but I have a different take on my argument. First of all, I do not think that my perspective is all about business, I clearly state that the faculty must insist on shared governance and budget transparency. Our vision of the university, which I am sure your share, is that the administrative class (and expenses) should be reduced, and the faculty and students should take ownership of our university. You might not like the tactic of occupation, but it is the first stage in staking a claim - this is our institution.

At Berkeley, when the students occupied Wheeler, and the media asked what are they demanding, the students said that they want 32 custodians to be rehired. The press and the administration did not know how to react to this moment of solidarity. This is the type of gesture that will show that we are all in this together. In contrast, the Commission for the Future of the University, that we both attended today, came off as a fake form of democracy. The public spoke, and there was no response from the commission.

If a movement will be built, I believe it will slowly grow through acts of solidarity. In fact, we are beginning to plan a big event on January 19th at UCLA. Karen Bass has agreed to do a public forum, and after she engages in a dialogue with us, we plan to hold a democratic forum with representatives from all sectors of California education. This forum will be dedicated to coming up with an action plan to defend public education in the state.

While I think I have proven that most of the UC problems are internal, I do recognize the need to restore UCs state funding and to support community colleges, pre-k-12, and the CSUs. I challenge the UC senate faculty to join us in our struggle.

Anonymous said...

Two of the recent "Latest News" links help to illustrate blind spots and illusions repeated on this blog and in this posr by Meranze.

First, the link to the SacBee article on State contribuions to CalPERS. The actual article does not mention UCRP. But this blog titles the link, "Gov to Give CalPERS State Funds, But Not UCRP."

Yes, it is true that the State is not proposing to give any money to UCRP. How unfair! How Wrong!

This is another case of the UC Uber Alles ideology in which this blog is trapped.

The State already contributes about $3 Billion a year to CalPERS and the Governator is proposing adding another $1.5 Billion to that. CalPERS is bigger than UCRP, it has been mismanaged for longer, it serves more retirees, and the State has a far more direct legal obligation to CalPERS than it has to UCRP.

Oh, and CalPERS hovers around the Too Big To Fail category. UCRP does not.

continued next comment.

Anonymous said...

Second, the legal obligation to CalPERS brings us to the usually unsavory Ward Connerly's oped in the Sac Bee, the subject of the second news link I think merits attention. UC is not the State's only obligation, and the nature of obligations and the nature of UC (and its future alternatives) need to be considered clearly.

Let's avoid the genetic fallacy. Just because George W Bush says it does not mean it is untrue, just because Ward Connerly says it does not mean it is wrong.

Connerly is right to point out the tensions inherent in UC's mixed status as an institution of public education and research that also plays in the marketplace for faculty and research, etc. There is a tension there.

One obvious solution to that tension is to fund Cal State and the Community Colleges for public education, and turn the UC or its top research campuses into private universities to fund themselves.

All I am saying is that there is a logic to that, not that I favor it.

If we follow the logic with a critical eye, a few issues emerge.

1) Connerly proposes there are only two options: maintain UC as it is, which is unsustainable, or privatize it. There are other options. UC as it is unsustainable, but it could change and still be public. There are hybrid versions. UC's shiny baubles, but not its size and mission, could be scaled back.

Let me put it this way: The global leadership of UC is as unsustainable as the global leadership of the US, and the two are closely related by economics and imperial ideology.

2) Let's discuss privatization. Connerly uses a simple public vs business dichotomy, declaring that UC is both public and a business that tries to take the best of both worlds, but gets caught in tensions between them. True to a point.

We need to remember that the issue of "privatizaion" when applied to universities like UC or Michigan is not the same thing as outsorucing prisons to Wackenhut or the Army to Halliburton and the mercernaries formerly known as Blackwater.

Private universities are non-profit corporations. Michael Meranze's defense of the university is as applicable to Harvard and Yale as it is to UC and UNC.

3) Connerly raises the red flag to excite the debate over UC with the prospect of cutting certain unnamed courses and programs: "When UC becomes a market-based entity, it might be forced to make cuts in certain courses that can no longer be justified."

Let's look at private universities and, say, the Humanities. They maintain Humanities depts as much as any public universities. So "privatization" is not a threat to the humanities.

Let's look at free speech and academic freedom. It is not at all clear to me that public universities have a better track record. At UC we have to take an oath. At Stanford faculty do not.

So let's get a grip, let's be more flexible, let's acknowledge some of the unworkable tensions in the current make-up of UC, and let's avoid hyperventilating and turning the world into a manichean war.

What's going on now is not, at its core, a long developing plot to turn UC into a capitalist factory - some of that happened a long time ago, some of that is dystopian fantasy, but, most of all, the economic crisis is real and bigger than the tiddlywinks of the UC system.

Yes, the future of the UC needs to be charted, and if we don't force our way into participating in the drafting sessions we will be shut out.

But to participate effectively we need to deal with reality, and not live in the world of UC Uber Alles (apologies to the Dead Kennedys, whose song was about Gov Jerry Brown, so have some historical memory, be careful what you wish for, and read some of the criticisms of Clark Kerr from the 1960s)

Chris Newfield said...

RealAnon- My position is equal treatment for UC and CSU, rather than inferior treatment for UC and CSU compared to other state agencies. Read the Cuts Report for a comparison, look at the charts in the Epilogue in "Unmaking the Public University" that compares state sectors, etc. The same goes for pension contributions. Where is the fairness in UC being the only agency excluded from the state honoring prior deals on pension contributions that were made years ago?

If you want to advocate for other sectors, go ahead. But your rejection of advocacy for UC and/or CSU is now both repetitious and unresponsive to what is actually being said on this blog, which is about how to save systems that are being irreversibly changed by force of budget cuts. Unless you can say something responsive and interactive with the content here,a and also somewhat interesting, this will by my last response to "you."

Anonymous said...


I feel frustrated, too.

Calling for equal treatment for UC & CSU and all other State agencies and programs is so full of problems: budgetary, political, ethical, etc, and it invites a State takeover of UC so that it would be operated by the State just as Caltrans is operated by the State.

UC is different from other State agencies and programs for many reasons. The fact that it is chartered and governed (somewhat) independently from the State is crucial in the pension issue and many other issues. Thus UC workers are a little different from most State workers, and faculty (the chief beneficiaries of UCRP) are quite a bit different from most State workers.

UC and CSU are different from each other, but also different from most other State agencies in myriad ways. They charge user fees that are higher than other State agencies in CA, much lower than similar educational institutions in other States, and, unlike most all other State agencies, UC and CSU (esp UC) are potentially able to sustain themselves by charging the prevailing national fees at comparable institutions.

That does not mean that universities are not important. Quite the opposite. It is their difference that makes them important. But to lobby for them effectively one needs to see them in context.

I will say again that the issue of honoring obligations to UCRP also included the UC's own decision not to contribute to UCRP for decades, which supported higher salaries to faculty than the UC could really afford. We all lived on the bubble. CalPERS pensioned workers paid into their pension themselves, which gives them a moral claim. We fight this issue at our peril.

As for positive suggestions (positive as the relative yet interrelated opposite of criticism), I have suggested many. Maybe they are wrong, but I have suggested many:

focus on the Feds rather than directly on the State;

address UC's problems as part of a larger economic program rather than the lead issue;

recognize that fee hikes for the wealthy comport with social justice in the absence of progressive and fair tax policy, and that the issue to fight here is not necessarily against fee hikes but for more aid to poor and working class and lower middle class students;

recognize that some of UC's fiscal excesses (certainly on the administrative level, but also on the faculty level) need to be addressed, not only because these are a non-trivial part of the budget problem, but also because they are a glaringly obvious political problem.

and several more.

but perhaps this is a waste of time.

We all have blind spots and make mistakes. I have my share, and I think I've pointed out a series repeated in these blog posts . . . and I think I've done it in a respectful way, never ad hominem, which has not always been the case in other comments or in featured posts on this blog.

Toby Higbie said...

Dear Anonymous: I admit to not reading all the comments on this blog so I don't know the track record of conversation you and Chris allude to. But if you want this reader to take you seriously, please use your real name.

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