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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

UCSB Budget Forum, or California After Apple

1970s California was no utopia, but I do get whiplash going from giving a UC budget talk yesterday at a UCSB Faculty Association forum to preparing for my senior seminar at noon by re-reading the Issacson biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs famously stood for the fusion of art and technology, not today's desperate and sterile fixation on building STEM with no regard for its interconnections with the arts and humanities.  Jobs was also famously obsessed with making things truly great.
Atkinson taught his team to put Jobs's words through a translator.  "We learned to interpret 'This is shit' to actually be a question that means, 'Tell me why this is the best way to do it.'"
Another example:
"If someone didn't care to make their product perfect, they were a bozo."  At the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981, for example, Adam Osborne released the first truly portable personal computer. . . it worked well enough.  As Osborne famously declared, "Adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous." Jobs found that approach to be morally appalling, and he spent days making fun of Osborne.  "This guy just doesn't get it," Jobs repeatedly railed as he wandered the Apple corridors.  "He's not making art, he's making shit."
Fast forward thirty-one years to yet another UC budget crisis forum, where the academic equivalent of making true art was as plausible as proposing that UC launch its own mission to Mars.  I showed slides of how far we have sunk: since the MacIntosh was released, the states have cut their real-dollar investment in public higher ed by about 25% (SHEEO Figure 3), and in California it's quite a bit worse.  Proposition 30 is a meager stopgap, but it is essential in order to prevent yet another cut to UC's and CSU's state funding--the "trigger cut" would be another 10% or so for UC. 

The overall panel discussion centered on engagement.
Tania Israel spoke about her extensive experience with the kinds of rhetorics that are effective in public outreach.  Assemblyperson Das Williams, chair of the California Assembly's Committee on Higher Education, noted the difficulty we have explaining the value of higher education to the public. UCSB's EVC Gene Lucas described Prop 30 as an at least partial stabilizer and described some improvements in UCSB's budget that could be coming.

As a group we formulated two positions--the humble appeal to better instincts, coupled with direct advocacy for the University.  It would be a humble but direct appeal.  There were problems even with this. An audience member, UC-AFT president Bob Samuels, said he'd spent part of the week trying to persuade UCOP that UC president Mark Yudof was legally authorized to send an email to all UC employees and students either explaining the impacts on UC if Prop 30 fails, or advocating its passage, or both (Samuels' own message is here). Also speaking from the audience, the sociologist Dick Flacks said that the most striking thing he'd heard was that the University isn't clear about its own power to advocate for itself.  He recommended alumni mobilization for Prop 30, which Lucas said was in the works. There's still a lot of waiting for UCOP going on.  Williams suggested that UCOP call the lawyers at CSU, who fixed the advocacy limits a while back.

To repeat, it is essential to pass Proposition 30, whose passage is not assured.   Focus needs to stay there, and Gov. Jerry Brown's stumping for his measure may help. And yet Prop 30 isn't close to adequate, even in Adam Osborne's sense. Leaving aside the nasty hostage politics that surround it, it perpetuates a new budgetary normal that has already and will continue to lower educational attainment for a minority-majority state that is rapidly losing the momentum it needs to stay in orbit. And if Prop 30 passes, it may distract us from the need for a massive rebuilding of UC and CSU capacity to do instruction and research that in 2012 we actually need.

The timidity of all this carries a whiff of doom.  We have been polite for years, and it has gotten us no protection from giant, random cuts. It has gotten us no real public understanding of the public value of the money we spend.  We continue to work on redesigns of the message.  But why, without massive new drama, will a redesign work this time?

I proposed confrontation with the states of disavowal of the effects of the actions of the public and the legislature--a return, for example, to the rhetoric of Mississippification that Peter Scrag used in Paradise Lost (1998), which tied racial polarization to economic decline via mass disinvestment.  My talk specifically targeted the semi-privatization of UC that would maintain public subsidies for privileged actors (e.g. UCLA's Anderson school in "How the Public Pays for Privatization") while allowing selectivity, exclusivity, and high tuition to divert us from broad development of the public's creative capabilities that is the only justification for public investment. We are at a fork in the road, I concluded: either we privatize seriously, which would end the cross-subsidies for expensive fields and change the university's economies, or we come together around the general development mission the public would fund, with cross-subsidies and other forms of resource sharing being a natural part of the program.

Steve Jobs benefited from living in a California that had created huge pools of engineering and design talent at taxpayer expense, and huge, wealthy tech companies built through government contracts.  He also benefited from first mover advantage: In 1977 or 1983, California had no global equal in the tech sectors that became famous.   Now about three billion people live in economies that compete directly with Silicon Valley.  So our response is not to get our own tens of millions to the highest level, but to make UC Berkeley second-tier, downgrade UC and CSU as systems, disable De Anza College, and turn Stanford into Get Rich U for the me-too product makers that Jobs despised?

Jobs was often ungrateful for society and its collective intelligence.  But he would have been able to tell the truth about the current plan for California: we're not making art, we're making shit.  


cloudminder said...

second paragraph - you might want to take former uc out of it- funny...

cloudminder said...

former uc president atkinson

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