By Michael Meranze
If some future historian comes to write the History of the Decline and Fall of the University of California she undoubtedly will puzzle over the administrations of Robert Dynes and Mark Yudof. The former’s problems were legion—from the Compact with the Governor, through myriad administrative scandals, to the alienation of the Regents and their increased efforts at micro-managing the University. The Yudof years are, of course, far from being finished. But certain characteristics are clear: a drive towards centralization and his dismissal of faculty and staff voices (for instance in his cavalier characterization of the university’s employees as the inhabitants of a cemetery) being the most obvious. Ultimately, however, these problems are symptoms of a deeper failing that cuts across both administrations: their inability to imagine a way out of the present crisis because their policies and assumptions are part of that crisis themselves.
Indeed, the most striking characteristic of the last two administrations—and the Regents who have employed them—has been their inability to offer a compelling economic, ethical, intellectual, or political justification of the University and its social importance for our time. President Yudof insists that he is an admirer of the Master Plan—and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. But the problem isn’t personal preferences. Far from seeking to transform the financing and rethink the nature of higher education as they claim, UCOP and its allies are simply proposing a more intensified version of an already failed system. The basic assumptions that President Yudof, UCOP, and their propagandists make about the way the world is actually reinforce the structure of business as usual. Because they are committed to a model that has failed American higher education they have been unable to defend the University effectively.
UCOP’s story begins from a basic unassailable fact: the decline in public funding support for the UC, indeed for all of the California’s higher education apparatus. President Yudof points, again with accuracy, to the fact that this decline has been occurring across the nation—while California’s crisis receives a huge amount of coverage, the underfunding of higher education here is not unique. Faced with this crisis, Yudof moves to his proposed response, what he has termed in the past the “hybrid university.”
The “hybrid university,” he insists, must accept that the decline in public funding is permanent. It must seek out new sources of revenue—from private donors, corporate contracts, and student fees—to compensate for this change. In effect, the hybrid university not only breaks with the centrality of public support, it also breaks with the centrality of the university’s public character. Public funding and the public aspects of the university’s institutional culture become means to leverage private funding, private support, and private commitments. This practical redefinition of the public from the heart of the university to a means of leverage helps explain UCOP’s continuing depiction of publicly funded parts of the University as drains on the institution’s finances while they laud privately generated funds as actual investments in the future.
But President Yudof is not articulating a new strategy; he is merely renaming the strategy that public universities have been pursuing for two decades—and that has brought us to the present crisis. This pursuit of the “hybrid university” has brought us to a period of declining educational achievement, increasing inequality in access to education, and a death spiral of funding for public education. The hybrid university has been in place at least since the early 1990s. It is the financial infrastructure of the decline of American higher education. It is that reality that UCOP is unable to confront.
To continue already failed strategies is not a rational plan—it is a recipe for continued decline. UCOP and its allies insist that the state cannot be brought back to its commitments and chide those who insist that it must for allegedly living in a fantasy world. But facing necessity is not fantasy—the strategies proposed by UCOP and its allies will not turn around the university because they are the strategies that have brought us to this point in the first place. Renewed public funding is not simply desirable. It is required.
The efforts to finance the University through tuition and private endowments may alleviate the problem slightly, but they cannot solve it. As the “Futures Report” made clear, there is no way to compensate for the loss of public funding without transforming UC into a fully private university. And how UC would make up for its minimal endowments, gain access to its physical plant (owned by the state), or be able to compete with leading private universities is unclear. To say nothing of how it would recover from the loss of its soul.
The only way to save the university, then, is to regain public support and state funding. Regaining state funding will not be easy and it will not be immediate; no one believes otherwise. Indeed, we should recognize that the present crisis is real and that the next several years, at least, will be difficult. As we all know, cuts have been imposed and more are coming.
It is because of the depth of the problem that the abdication of UC’s leadership (both in UCOP and the System-wide Senate) is so devastating. By pretending that there are funding solutions without state reinvestment, they enable the Governor and his allies to dodge the full responsibility for their actions. And by failing to make the full economic, ethical, intellectual and political, argument for public education and for public investments they help ensure that students will receive lesser educations in the future and that the state will suffer the consequence.
The tragedy here is that in their embrace of a failed funding model and their depiction of faculty and staff as dinosaurs from another age they denigrate the institution that they are charged to protect and serve. Again, President Yudof’s off-handed comment that the “shine” is off education is all too typical of a lack of confidence in the very institution that he is charged with leading. Californians have, for decades, taken great pride in their institutions of higher education. It is the recent transformation of the universities into corporate like entities whose main concern seem to be revenue streams rather than teaching, research, and service that alienates so many of the public. Students are trained into debt rather than disciplines; they are driven into fields because of economic pressure rather than curiosity. And in the end, they are not even guaranteed a job. But UCOP seems unable to draw upon that long-standing pride. Appearing more as managers of a corporation than educators of a generation, they simply reaffirm the worst fears of skeptical public.
If UC’s leadership truly wishes to save the University they cannot do so by pretending that there are private funding streams that can preserve the University or, indeed, by thinking about UC alone. UCOP, of course, needs to intensify efforts to work with the leaders of the CSU and the CC’s to make the case for the necessity of higher education to the state. But even this alliance will only get part of the way towards ensuring education into the future.
The state faces an ethical and political crisis—one that is based upon the question of whether or not we plan to sacrifice or educate and nurture the young. Higher Education cannot survive in a context where children are denied health-care, child-care, or education unless their parents are wealthy enough to provide them. Higher Ed leaders must draw upon the prestige of their institutions to make the public case not simply for higher education but for broader public investment in the future. They cannot do this overnight—nor can they do it alone. There is no guarantee of success.
Saving the University by helping to transform California’s political culture will necessitate genuine change in the attitudes of UC’s leadership—most importantly they will have to break their complicity with the right-wing forces in the state government (most evident in their embrace of the Governor) as well as curb the power of finance capital in the running of the University. They will need to stop insisting that the University can do without increased state funding. And they will need to turn their backs on the hybrid funding model that has brought us to this crisis. But if they do not attempt to do so, they cannot complain when the History of the Decline and Fall of the University of California treats this moment as the strange defeat of the University.
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