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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Worst of Both Worlds

By Michael Meranze

“Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, We have begun to change our civilization.”
John Maynard Keynes

Despite the claims of its leaders and proponents, Wednesday’s rollout of the first draft of UCOF recommendations reveal that far from being “a brave first take” as President Yudof would have it, the Gould Commission threatens to throw the University into a headlong embrace of the most conventional assumptions of a public philosophy that has led the United States into economic, political, and social crisis. At precisely the moment when the decades long denigration of public commitments in favor of private interests has led to profound economic crisis, when the high-tuition, high-aid model in higher-education has proven unable to sustain wide-ranging access, when the effort to reduce value to a question of marketability has revealed its larger implications in failed schools, cities, environmental degradation and growing inequality, the UCOF process proposes to remake the University in the name of market efficiencies. Rather than breaking with past UC practices, the concrete proposals of the Gould Commission would simply entrench the shift from public support to private fee, the disengagement of research from teaching, and the expansion of the non-educational sectors of the University.

To be fair, there are things to applaud in the workgroup reports—signs of individuals’ efforts to push back against the narrow framing of the UCOF process. For one thing, both the “Access and Affordability” and the “Funding Strategies” reports make clear the absolute centrality of state support for the University. Indeed, the Working Group reports challenge the often-repeated assertion that UC must accept the reality of declining state funding and rely more and more on private and individual contributions in order to survive. Instead they demonstrate that UC’s leadership’s acquiescence in declining state support and plans to compensate on the backs of students is doomed to failure; even without the obvious ethical and political problems the funds would never be sufficient for the University to flourish. Instead of this passive acceptance, the Working Groups recommend a much more active and consistent effort to regenerate public support and public pressure in favor of the University. For another, both the Funding and Research Working Groups have made clear the extent to which core funds have been underwriting external research in the University for decades. The reports offer a variety of plans to try to raise the rates for Indirect Cost Recovery—proposals that would generate large sums of money. The Research Working Group has acknowledged the importance of breaking down the insidious distinctions of the value of research based on funding opportunities, and recognized the various ways that research remains a public good. The “Access and Affordability” Working Group in particular emphasizes the centrality of the commitment to access to the University and the need to acknowledge the University’s uneven success in meeting that commitment. In particular, they ask for a reaffirmation of the University’s promises to California’s High School graduates and of the University’s responsibility to disadvantaged students. Finally, several of the Working Groups recognize the importance of a serious effort to re-engage the Federal Government in the support of the University in the widest way—and not simply in the support of discrete research projects.

While welcome, many of these statements of commitment bear little relationship to the practical heart of the Working Group recommendations. Instead, the substantive proposals to confront the budget crisis all continue well-established, internal UC practices. Rather than an effort to rethink the way that the University operates or conceives of itself, or a meaningful effort to restore the public heart of the institution, the UCOF proposals simply intensify trends that have been in place for the last decade—trends that have contributed to the depiction of higher education as a private service rather than a public good.

For all of the laudable rhetoric about the importance of public support and funding, and despite the important recognition of the distorting and damaging effects of the structure of ICR, the “Funding Strategies” report, as Chris has shown, centers on a dramatic increase in student fees (renamed tuition) as well as an expansion of out-of-state students. These proposals could eventually double the costs for instate students and raise those for out of state students to nearly $40,000. Yet even with these numbers (and with the expansion of out of state students) the rise in fees would not cover the recent cuts in state support. Just as importantly for the long-term character of the University the logic of these fee increases—or at least the logic of how to calculate them—is done solely according to the elasticity or non-elasticity of demand. Put another way, the calculations being proposed are not based on a project of making the University as accessible as possible but rather on one designed to raise costs as high as possible without losing consumers.

By the same token, despite the powerful restatement of the rhetoric of opportunity in the “Access and Affordability” report, the history of high-tuition, high-aid programs demonstrates that access is in fact lessoned considerably. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the University of Michigan, to take only the favorite comparison institution, is little over half the lowest percentage in the UC system (UCOF, 96), while the University of Virginia to take another favorite comparison has lower percentages than Michigan. Moreover, while the Working Groups bravely insist that there should be a new contract with the state the historical evidence strongly suggests that raising fees simply allows the state to lower its support for core programs. Again, put another way, rather than a departure from the practices that have landed the University in its present fiscal crisis, the tuition model will simply exacerbate them.

Not surprisingly, the contradictions of the recommendations are clearest in the “Educational and Curriculum” Working Group’s report. Rei Terada has effectively dissected this report so I will not belabor all of it. As she forcefully demonstrated, the systematic effect of their report is to ask students to pay more for less: encouraging the “buying out” of senate faculty and their replacement by lecturers and graduate students, pushing to expand online programs despite their checkered history, finding ways to shorten time for degree in exchange for a decline in student options, etc. But even more striking is their diffidence in defending the notion of a quality education. As the work group puts it (49); “The Education and Curriculum Working Group believes that maintaining the quality of UC undergraduate, graduate, and professional education at the highest levels possible should be a top priority.” “Believes”? “Should be”? “A” top priority? Compared to what? Are there higher priorities for the Working Group? Why such diffidence? Leaving aside the question of defining “high quality” the report seems to confirm what many fear—that there are forces within the University who believe that educational quality (which UC has always insisted includes teaching and research) is not “the” core priority for the University.

In fact, this diffidence gets to the heart of the problem with the UCOF process. The Working Group reports are filled with the language of “inputs” and “outputs,” “best practices and efficiencies,” “metrics” and “value-added,” “elastic” and “inelastic” demand. Of course, who could be opposed to “best practices”? But “best practices” and efficiencies” to what end? If the aim of a fee system is to maintain the widest possible access then the best practice is different than if the aim is to raise as much revenue as possible without losing consumers. If the aim of efficiency is to lessen administrative costs then the best practice will be different than if it is to cajole or compel faculty into more uniform departmental practices. If the goal of a course is to create a repeatable commodity that can be viewed individually at any time while earning revenue for the University then the best practice will be different than if the aim is to provide opportunities for students to learn from each other’s questions and engage in a give and take with a teacher. If the aim is to give priority to funds coming from external grants and fee for services then the best practices will be different from emphasizing the shared core programs and responsibilities of the campuses.

Remarkably, the questions of what the University is for are barely touched upon in the Working Group reports. Instead of an evaluation of purpose or a searching discussion of the place of higher education we are overwhelmed with languages more appropriate to a cultic bowing down before the Gods of Accountancy. But as has been pointed out so often, the Gods of Accountancy may teach the price of everything but they teach the value of nothing.

If we approach all questions through the lenses of managerial logic and markets we will only get answers in the logics of managerial calculations and markets. But it is that logic that has devalued so much of what makes the university worth defending—and life worth living for that matter. And so UCOF proposes to continue and intensify attitudes that have helped create the crisis in the first place. Despite all of the rhetoric, we are not witnessing administrators making “hard choices” (it is always interesting how their hard choices tend to hurt others rather than rebounding on themselves) but a pretense of new departures and imaginative approaches to the future.

Indeed, UCOP shows no indication of resisting the prevailing finance and market mentality. In supporting the online proposals President Yudof remarked that “'In the long run, (expanded online instruction) will happen at one of the great research universities,' .... 'It's just a question of when. I'd like to see UC play a leadership role.'" But this statement does not mark UC as a leader but as a lemming. We must do it because someone else might; we wouldn’t want to miss out on market share after all. But what if the spread of online courses had more to do with profit margins than with educational opportunity? What if the purpose of education was less the capacity to absorb knowledge than to think about it critically and in dialogue with others? But what if the University actually acknowledged the damage that has been caused by the reduction of values to market share? What if it refused the misapplied realism that has devalued the public and the community?

The time has come to refuse the false wisdom of Christopher Edley when he dismissed the “consultation process which typif[ies] the University” while insisting that “budget discipline comes from the top-down.” I would insist that contra Dean Edley “we cannot afford [not] to go through the normal consultative process” and that the last thing we need is a “more muscular central system” when we have no idea what values—other than economic efficiency--guide the administrators. Ironically, what Dean Edley would give us is the worst of two worlds—the primacy of vacuous notions of market efficiency and the undemocratic imposition of central planning. It would be as if we combined the worst of high-modernist city planning with the worst of the financial industry’s denigration of long-term sustainability in order to protect the lack of transparency and growing inequality in the institution. Such a combination would prove lethal to a community devoted to open inquiry, research, and teaching.

We are clearly at a crossroads in the UCOF process. The first round of recommendations is precisely that—a first round, a testing of the atmosphere. If the faculty sits back instead of arguing back the Regents will reinforce the trends that have helped bring about this crisis while exploring new means to shift the UC away from being the foremost public higher education system in the country. People need to speak out in whatever forums they have. And they need to so without delay.


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