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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Change the Culture of Helplessness

I'm grateful to Cloudminder for a steady stream of UC news updates: check out this past busy UC week. Berkeley's Daily Cal has been providing coverage of management and finance issues that is as good or better than the state's daily newspapers. See this piece on UC's decreasing net assets, for example.

But staying in the steady stream of dismal news does make it harder to remember that it doesn't have to be like this. I can still imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger who forced a state funding growth ceiling on UC and CSU via the Compact but who did not then abandon it unilaterally in 2008. I can imagine a Board of Regents whose members get close to a couple of local campuses and use independent information to assess UCOP reports, and who evaluate solutions offered by faculty, students, and staff. I can imagine a UCOP that decides that transparency with more state trust is better for revenues than opacity with less state trust, and that makes a real long-term effort to explain the details of the budget, including answering questions like why basic arithmetic doesn't back up core claims such as the amount the state gives to UC per student each year (supposedly $7200, page 3). I can imagine a state legislature that would allow higher ed revenues to grow at the same rate as state income (if this had happened since 1990 UC would have $6 billion in state funding rather than be looking $2.5 billion). I can imagine a state population that would be willing to pay the same share of its income in higher education taxes that it did twenty years ago, and not closer to the half that share that it pays now (chart 2d).

The supposed impossibility of that version of California is not a fact of nature. It has been and is continually created by the decisions the major players make on a daily basis. This includes UC’s Regents and Office of the President. In these cases, their agency is regularly concealed behind a consistent strategy of blame-shifting onto the state legislature and, behind them, the voting public and their alleged universal rejection of the very concept of a public good. The university's decline has been accelerated by a culture of helplessness at the top, one which assigns blame elsewhere and helps to demobilize its own community.

Here are some examples from the March Regents' meeting.

The chair of the Board of Regents declared the restoration of state funding to be unrealistic, and in so doing took a major step towards creating that reality and locking it in. Sacramento Democrats and Republicans had their suspicion confirmed that UC would not hold them to a higher funding standard, and would not put up a fight against the current cuts. Similarly, Mark Yudof's recent testimony to the state Senate budget committee focused on avoiding a further $500 million cut as part of the so-called "all-cuts" budget, and tacitly accepted the first $500 million as a given.

In keeping with Chair Gould’s aforementioned diktat, Regent Richard Blum laid out a high-tuition plan as an absolute necessity - no further debate desired or required. I calculated that his plan would mean near-term tuition increases to over $20,000 (in-state) and medium-term increases to $40,000. The lower figure is the minimum required to maintain current levels of educational investment without the first $500 million cut. Rather than stating and tweeting the disastrous tuition news every day, UCOP spent all winter and spring saying that it planned no tuition increases - unless the additional $500 million cut took place. The effect was to muffle the only UC constituency with real influence with California's media, financially desperate undergraduate students. Having lost another five-month opportunity for opposition- and movement-building around public funding, UCOP then placed on next week's Regents agenda a proposal for a new 32% tuition increase, which would bring 2011-12 tuition to over $16,000, plus campus and registration fees (see next-to-last paragraph). UCOP waited until it could present the increase as forced upon them by a political reality over which they and their allies have no control.

Then there's the issue of UC's declining educational quality. UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake said that his campus is

Poised on the precipice of a negative change in quality, which, if allowed to occur, will require a generation to remedy. He praised the excellence of the UC Irvine faculty, but noted that faculty members now spend a great deal of time mitigating damage caused by cuts rather than building for the future. He described the situation of the University as one of slow decay rather than growth. Most effort is focused on protecting the educational path for students; innovation and growth are not being fostered.

These comments are extremely grave. Within American management culture, which requires continuous displays of problem-solving resolve to leaven its peculiar fatalism, they are a declaration of an educational emergency. They were accompanied by descriptions of the decline of the ability to develop individual creative capacities through face-to-face interactions, such as the wholesale elimination of the Irvine campus’s freshman seminar program.

But the state has heard all of this before. The decline has not yet occurred, is not currently occurring, but may occur in the future if the cuts are not brought to an end. Even Chancellor Drake muddled his message by saying that UC is in danger of moving from A+ to A. The vast majority of Californians, whose lifestyles are hovering around C+, would understandably accept UC “A”. Similarly, the financial statements in the Chancellor’s declarations suggest that the budget shortfalls can be handled with regrettable but nonetheless manageable layoffs that have already taken place. The non-UC reader would think, well they’re tightening their belts and fixing their IT problems and we’ll end up with a UC that gets an A for only $2.5 billion in state funds. There is no screaming on our end that says no it cannot be this way and also no it need not be this way. Refusing to take responsibility for having already damaged educational quality with its past political decisions, UCOP warns of decline this time. It is playing Chicken Little with the state.

In contrast to managerial fatalism, faculty members have been putting up a very good fight. I will have to do a separate post to discuss valuable pieces that came out this last week in The Nation and the London Review of Books, and same goes for work closer to home, such as the immediate past chair of the Senate’s systemwide Committee on Planning and Budget (UCPB) Peter Krapp’s excellent piece on why we need to keep the University of California unstratified and whole. But UC Uncut and UC Whole both entail the continuation of the Board of Regents and the Office of the President. At the moment, they are not the system’s strongest points. Whatever the specific errors of campus leaders, one can imagine campuses moving forward via chancellor-presidents with the local knowledge and on-site accountability of campus administrators. You can get a feeling for this by reading the testimony of Chancellors Birgeneau, Blumenthal, and Drake in March.

But local knowledge and direct accountability are largely lacking at the Regental-UCOP level. This problem will need to be solved if UC is going to go forward as a single system.

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