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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

By Michael Meranze

UCOP’s continuing insistence that the state is, and will continue to be, an “unreliable partner” has placed them in lock-step with the very forces that are committed to reducing the importance of public commitments to our common life--indeed to reducing our common life itself. Aligning themselves with the Governor and his perception of the state of the State has meant that the Regents and UCOP can do little but watch the University deteriorate while it is transformed into an unrecognizable and no longer public university.

Of course, UCOP’s belief that California is now an “unreliable partner” has its roots in real difficulties. The state has reduced its investment in higher education dramatically and the political system is profoundly dysfunctional. We are all familiar with the various causes and symptoms: the 2/3 requirement for passing a budget (in place since 1933); the limits on property taxes (with a resultant shift to income and sales taxes) and the 2/3 requirement for any tax increase put into place by Proposition 13, the increased spending on corrections, the capture—by well-financed corporate interests—of the initiative process, the devaluation of experienced political leaders that both triggered and resulted from term limits, the constant shuffling of appointed positions between termed-out politicians, and the increasingly anti-governmental and reactionary nature of the Republican party. As a result, UC’s leadership can no longer operate as if there is a consensus in support of higher education held by the state’s political leadership.

But UCOP has drawn precisely the wrong conclusions from this situation. Instead of working to promote a new commitment to public investment (which they know they need) they have instead embraced political actors and strategies that have failed UC time and again. Let’s take President Yudof’s famous “unreliable partner” statement. Yudof noted that he “was impressed by 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.” But Genest is not some apolitical technocrat. Instead he is a committed political figure with a committed political agenda—to downsize the state government by convincing the public that state funds do not serve the vast majority. As Genest notably claimed in an interview, “Government doesn’t provide services to rich people .... It doesn’t even really provide services to the middle class.” Genest and the Governor he served (Genest resigned late last year) have been driving the effort to reduce Government support for the poor and lessen the contributions of the wealthy to the common good. They want the government to be an unreliable partner.

Popular mythology aside, California’s Republican Party has not been a friend of the University for a long time—if ever. The numbers are clear. Arnold and his then Finance Director Donna Arduin (brought in to find ways to downsize the government as she had in Florida) pressed UC and CSU to agree to the Higher Education Compact that locked in underfunding of the University. UC leaders then watched as the Governor unilaterally broke the Compact in 2008 and then further reduced spending in 2009 and 2010.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary Arnold has been committed to the proposition that the state and social services need to be as minimal as possible. Republicans in government, not “the state of California,” have starved the public sector (and not simply Higher Education) since the 1990s. Indeed, Gray Davis was the only recent Governor who did not starve the system. By accepting the perspective of a Governor who has done more than any Governor in memory to undermine the public sector and by blaming the state in general, the Regents and UCOP have alienated potential Democratic supporters in the Legislature and made the decline of public education appear all but inevitable.

Governor Schwarzenegger insists that cuts are the answer to the budget crisis and proclaims that we have spent our way into this mess. But as even the LAO admits, state spending over the last decade has not kept up with inflation and population growth and Arnold’s proposals would lower per capital state spending in real dollars to a level not seen since the mid-1990s. (5,7) Nor do these data address the long-standing shift of California’s tax structure away from corporate taxes onto income taxes and the effectively regressive nature of the income and capital gains taxes.

Genest’s comments made clear that Arnold’s administration believes that only the poor benefit from government services and that their job is to make sure that the wealthy do not have to pay for too many of those services. When UCOP and the Regents act as if fee increases and administrative efficiencies can compensate for the loss of state income they not only reinforce the image that government investment is a luxury that we can do without but they provide institutional cover for the Republican’s wide-ranging efforts to strip away social services from the citizens of the state.

In truth, the Governor’s proposal to increase funding for the University (which received predictable and lavish thanks from UCOP) merely replaced some of the funds that he had cut from higher education over the years. To make matters worse, Governor Schwarzenegger’s May Revision set higher education against the needs of the poor and sick. It is hard to see this gambit as anything but a calculated ploy to force Democrats to support cuts either to higher education or to the needy. The Governor will thereby promote the notion that it is the poor who stand in the way of middle-class opportunity and security--thereby solidifying a notion that the public realm is a danger to the middle-class.

Now I understand perfectly well that no UC administration is going to publicly break with the Governor. He sits on the Board of Regents and has tremendous power over the institution. But that does not mean that the administration needs to parrot his ideological distortions of the state’s budget and economy.

Instead of echoing an ideology designed to impose austerity on the poor as a way to protect the privileges of the wealth, UCOP needs to place the centrality of public support for UC and UC’s importance to the public at the heart of their public campaign for the University. Instead of assuming that the public believes that higher education is a pointless superfluity when it doesn’t directly produce commodities, UC’s leadership must insist over and over again that if we fail to provide a high-quality public education to the young of the state we will be condemning the future.

Of course, given the structure of California politics and the ideological commitments of California’s Republican Party such advocacy will not succeed without resistance nor will it work wonders overnight. Indeed there is no guarantee of its success. But we can be sure of one thing: the Regents and UCOP will be unable to defend higher education so long as they simply repeat the failed policy of echoing Governor Schwarzenegger’s destructive understanding of California’s future. So long as they do so they will simply provide political cover for an effort to entrench deeper hierarchies in California and sacrifice the young and the poor for the sake of wealth and power. And UC will be sacrificed as well.


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