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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Higher Education As A Public Good

By Michael Meranze

November promises to be a tumultuous month in the UC system. The beginnings of the Gould Commission’s flyovers of campuses, the upcoming Regents Meeting and the vote on increasing fees, the planned protests by staff, students, and faculty, all indicate that the month will be crucial moment in the re-definition of the University. Nothing will be solved in November, of course. But UCOP's and the Regents' vision of what the University is and what it should look like has come increasingly into focus. Between the Fee increases and that clarified focus, we will have both short and long-term tasks. We will need to offer an alternative vision of the University--how it should be organized and governed, what its ends are, and what is its relationship to the larger public—in short, a vision of Higher Education as a Public Good. I should make clear that although I am focusing on UC here, I don’t think that either the problems or any solutions are limited to UC. What is at stake over the next period is the future of the community colleges and CSU as well.

We should be clear what we are up against—both in Oakland and in Sacramento. Indeed, the ties between Oakland and the Governor are part of the problem. President Yudof’s latest public relations attempt to justify his proposed fee increases puts to rest any notion that he is capable or willing to defend the notion of higher education as a public good. In it, he continued his long-standing mantra that the State is an “unreliable partner” and that the University needs to shift the burden of its funding more heavily onto fees and private donations. In order to do so he refers to “the honesty of Mike Genest, California's state director of finance, who agreed with me — in public — that the state has become an unreliable partner.” President Yudof would like to portray this as an unfortunate and unchangeable situation. But to do so demands that he treats Genest as a neutral broker. But he isn’t. Instead, Genest, as Governor Schwarzenegger’s finance director, has been at the forefront of the governor’s program to redistribute the state’s burdens regressively. Genest, after all, famously told reporters, that “Government doesn’t provide services to rich people,” indeed, “It doesn’t even really provide services to the middle class.” Neither the rich nor the middle-class, of course, benefit from fire or police departments, clean air or water, roads, education, public health, or any other government programs. The Parsky Commission proposals—which the Governor, and one presumes his Finance Director has endorsed—will shift the tax burden of the state in a powerfully regressive fashion and lower the state’s revenues at the same time. Yet Yudof has chosen to ally himself with this world-view. If he honestly thinks that this is a neutral and objective—rather than an ideologically driven—view of the future of state government then it is no wonder that he has proven so incapable of articulating an effective defense of public higher education or of the necessity for state funding. To be sure, Yudof is most likely only doing what the Regents would like him to do. The Regents themselves have shown no inclination to break with the Governor. Neither the Regents nor UCOP will ever point out that the emperor has no clothes.

So where does that leave us? In the short run, it seems to me that at the minimum we need to try to prevent the present crisis from defining the nature of long-term policies. There are numerous ways to prevent the rushed redefinition of the University. But let me suggest a few.

First, the Regents should never have put the fee increases on the table without a firm commitment from the State that as the budget improves the cuts would be restored and the fees could be lowered. But they can, without such an agreement, formally make the fee increases temporary. Making the fee increases temporary, will not, I realize, help students in the present crisis. But it may help stop the notion that they are ATMs who can be pressed for more money on the way to de facto privatization. We should insist that the Regents to provide actual data on how much money will be raised by the fees with guarantees (with specific dollar commitments) that the increased costs will be matched for students whose parents earn up to $100,000.

Second, it needs to be made clear to the Regents that they face a genuine crisis of confidence and legitimacy within the University system. The Gould Commission needs to be slowed if not reconfigured. The notion that such a report can actually be delivered by March is ludicrous unless the plans have already been formulated. Local committees are already complaining that they do not have the data they need, administrators are providing them with a pre-set menu of choices (usually which programs to cut), other committees don’t even have their memberships set, and the notion that the Commission is going to spend 3 hours on each campus reveals, more clearly than anything yet, the contempt being manifested for the campuses and the people who work there. If there is going to be a discussion and debate over the future of the University it should be one that is open, from the bottom up, and in the best traditions of the University. It should not be done by a stacked commission looking for ways to let funding streams determine the shape of teaching and research.

Finally, we need to publicly challenge UCOP’s practice of defining the University primarily though its overall budget and the private/public partnerships that occur in the Medical Centers and some of the research activities. I am not advocating some attack on the Medical Centers or an attempt to undermine independent research activity. But in so far as UCOP is emphasizing and protecting those activities instead of the Colleges, in so far, as they claim that the State provides only a small proportion of the University’s budget—as opposed to stressing that the State provides a majority of the budget that goes to educational costs—they are accelerating an argument and program that suggests that UC does not need the State.

In the end, however, we will have to articulate our own vision of higher education as a public good. The Master Plan conceived of higher education as a means of social mobility, as a source for public debate and creativity, as a mechanism for developing new ideas and approaches to the natural and social world, to the arts and the humanities, and to the State’s responsibilities to help individuals live a full and meaningful life. In a word, the Master Plan insisted upon the State’s responsibilities to help students become citizens engaged in the world in the largest sense.

This Master Plan’s vision has been abandoned in multiple ways. Most obvious have been the erosion of the University’s commitment to access and its explicit and implicit redefinition of its responsibilities under the master plan. But it has also been abandoned in our narrowed expectations of what higher education should do and what we are preparing students for. In so far as we allow our jobs to be conceived as preparing students for work or for graduate training we have already lost an important battle to professional deans who think that on-line education can take the place of classroom dialogue. And in so far as we allow the value of research to be determined by its immediate usefulness to the corporation or the state we devalue the development of the imagination—whether scientific, humanistic, or practical. The defense of higher education needs to be made on the basis of the full development of the human imagination and of public higher education on the full development of the capacity and experience of the citizen.

Higher education as a public good means more than just higher education for the public good. The attack on public universities is, as Chris Newfield has argued, part of an attack on the notion of a public good in general. Defending the notion of a public good may be the most difficult task ahead. It will mean overcoming decades of ideological attacks, of erosion of a sense of shared responsibilities and burdens, and of deliberate attempts to imply that any public program is doomed to failure and inefficiency. But in order to prevent the University from becoming defined by its private flows of money and the burdens placed on students, staff, and faculty, we will need to overcome the public’s disengagement from the notion of the public itself.

I do not know what to suggest on this last point. And I recognize that my short-term solutions may appear too little, too late. But I offer them in the hopes that others will propose other ideas. We need more ideas on how to counter the present crisis, ideas that can counter the way that UCOP and the Regents have defined the problem and its solution. And we need them fast.


Anonymous said...

The Yudof link is broken. But I think it's this one:


Michael Meranze said...

Thanks. It is fixed.

telling said...

why do you call it flyover when they come to listen to you? your martial rhetoric seems like friendly fire

Anonymous Souls said...

@ telling said...
why do you call it flyover when they come to listen to you?

The recent meeting of the "Regents Commission on the Future" held at UCSB was hyped as an event where the regents would "come and listen" to the concerns of students, staff, and faculty. Not one sitting regent actually bothered to attend. If this event is any indication of the way other such meetings go, I'd say the term "flyover" is giving them entirely too much credit.

TB said...

One thing I can't comprehend: time after time Yudof appears to go out of his way to absolve the Governator from any personal responsibility for what's happening to the UC system. The linked document is yet another indication. Why is the Governator allowed to walk away from the Compact he himself has signed and suffer no political damage? It might be argued that it's too late to inflict any real damage on Schwarzenegger -- the guy is nearly out -- but there will be the next one after him. Seeing Yudof acting like a lapdog will certainly reassure the next governor that the UC system can be shortchanged at will, with no political repercussions. Am I missing something here?

Unknown said...

The answer lies in the Governator's recent veto of 3 bills, ranging from capping UC administrative salaries to extending whistleblowers' rights for exposing university corruption. They obviously have a pact, not to mention a shared ideology about what a public university should look like.

Anonymous said...

@ Jenny and TB

And if the public doesn't value higher education as an abstract concept--as a public good, then it really doesn't matter to them that the governor walked away from a compact that few may even have been aware of. Maybe I've been spending too much time in my "ivory tower"--otherwise known as full days devoted to undergraduate education--but I've been surprised at the contempt expressed by some commentators toward UC faculty (in the comments in various news stories as well as some OpEd pieces).

And it's not only the contempt for UC faculty; but the devaluing of liberal education--as Michael puts it, the devaluing of the "development of the imagination."

anonstaff said...

Don't forget this November attraction as well. There's something chilling about the term "Post-Employment".....

UCOP Post-Employment Benefits Task Force Listening Forum for Staff

November 10, 10:30 am -12:30 pm - Active and Retired Staff

Sibley Auditorium - Bechtel Engineering Center

This is a listening forum initiated by the UC Office of the President on the future of
UC post-retirement benefits (both pension and health benefits).

Chris Newfield said...

TB and Jenny do point out the glaring double-standard, and it should be pointed out more often. "Governor Schwarzenegger is an unreliable partner."

Jenny also raises the unpleasant possibility of a tacit quid pro quo: the Gov gets a free pass and UC takes the hit, and in exchange senior managers escape salary caps and whistleblowers, who might be esp useful for saving money, but could also be embarrassing, lack protection

Isabell Geller said...
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Shawn said...
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