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Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday, July 19, 2013

Some Unanswered Questions for UC President-Elect Napolitano

The spirit of the University of California is the closed, top-down process through which the Regents divulged the nomination of Janet Napolitano only six days before the final vote, and then approved her while, in the words of one old Oakland hand, appearing “completely unaffected by the testimony that they heard.” 

The spirit of the University of California is the outpouring of critique, questioning, and protest at the appointment discussion itself, captured by this photo of Alex Aldana being led out of the meeting by police, which the LA Times used as its image of the meeting.  If nothing else, the Regents’ meetings are now producing the UC system’s best protests.  As as result, we were able to offer Ms. Napolitano a full UC welcome. 


Now that the decision is over and done, we need to get real answers to the major questions that were completely absent from the official proceedings. 

Many of the strongest objections addressed Ms. Napolitano's status as a top player in the national security establishment.  I too had a hard time fathoming that our next president was coming directly from running the Department of Homeland Security. But I won't discuss these questions here: I did one post partially on this, and there are more thorough treatments of the issue by Professors Joe Kiskis (UC Davis) and Mark LeVine (UC Irvine), among others.

The other major problem is her lack of expertise in university affairs. Public universities are still up the creek, and UC, with its very high standards, its full-spectrum research, and its bipartisan austerity politicians, is up it farther than most. What is this A-list Democrat politician going to do that the also-politically oriented Mark Yudof couldn't do before her?  What is she going to do given that the core threats come from corporate reformers in her own party? What is she going to do when the threats come from inside the house? When they come from people with whom we have to assume she bascially agrees?

The problem with politicians like Ms. Napolitano is not just the medium but the message. UC's current president, Mark Yudof, was hired with exactly the same theory--we need someone who can work with legislatures.   He had a good track record dealing with statehouses in Minnesota and Texas, not to mention with the wrestler-governor Jesse Ventura.  But in spite of his experience with the political medium he didn't have the right academic message.  

Can Ms. Napolitano do better with major questions that the public and politicians are asking, day in day out? Just having more clout and connections than Mr. Yudof isn't going to do the trick.

  1. Why should public universities have public funding restored? Why can't they just do more with less--perhaps by using more technology like everybody else? 
  2. Why should public universities and not just wealthy privates like Stanford and Harvard conduct expensive scientific research? What are the public purposes, or huge scale, or something, that requires lots of public support in the public sector? 
  3. What specific types of undergraduate educational improvements would result from restored funding?  How would students benefit, exactly, from public reinvestment?
  4. What are the limits of online education for public university students? Why shouldn't UC students spend, say, two of twelve quarters studying off site and online to make better use of resources? What exactly is the harm in that?  
  5. What are the limits of competency-based education?  Why shouldn't we disaggregate our public colleges into skill-oriented units with semi-routinized instructors and an emphasis on peer-to-peer instruction? Why isn't a collection of "badges" as good as a college degree?
  6. Do we really need as many PhD trained faculty teaching 20 year olds as we have? What do they do that technicians running MOOCs can't do?  
  7. Do we really need so much academic research? What are we really learning from political science? Or art history? Or environmental biology?
  8. What is wrong with using post-graduate salary data to grow and shrink majors by statistical evaluation and administrative decree? 
  9. Why should the state pay more money when so much is just going into employee pensions, which most Americans no longer have? 
  10. What are the educational, intellectual, or social benefits of allowing students to protest?   Why should taxpayers support institutions that disgruntled young people use to launch attacks on society? On the other hand, why can't UC keep non-UC police off campus and create a safe space for political speech? 
  11. What is the payoff of academic freedom, beyond giving professors protection that few Americans have in their own workplaces? 
This is a start on the core questions about the nature, mission, promise, and vision of public universities.  The past twenty years of semi-privatization has confused everyone and made them much tougher to answer.  Privatization, continuous financial anxiety, and the solicitation of an unending series of sponsors who now call the tune have obscured what the unique public missions actually are.   Universities used to be bastions against political influence, and now they aren't, and seem to most of the public to be as political as any other governmental entity or corporation.  Universities, thanks to all of their compromises, have not sustained the arguments for public support.  This is the world that Ms. Napolitano has inherited, and inherited it without knowledge of its inner workings.

We already know the likely path if she and we can't answer these questions correctly. It's mediocrity--Mark Yudof was right to worry about this--in the institutions being offered to a great generation of students, often first generation, working-class, of color, undocumented, who need more, higher, education from us rather than lesser and lower.   

This downgrade is completely unnecessary, and it is something we can stop. I hope that the shame of it--the shame of ripping off this new generation of students--will galvanize Ms. Napolitano and the rest of us into laying the intellectual groundwork for a policy about-face. 

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

These are the kinds of questions that the faculty should answer. Preferably on each campus at the level of the senate and then from the combined senate.

xicano said...

One more set of unanswered questions for Napolitano just to make Chris' list a full dozen: Does the UC have a primary responsibility to educate California youth? What is a fair distribution of CA, out of state, and international undergraduates? Are there any compelling reasons for UC to commit to educating the children of communities that have been historically excluded from higher education over several generations, e.g. African American and U.S. Latino?

Allan Stewart-Oaten said...

These are excellent questions which all faculty should be thinking about (out loud: most of us already do in private). Others will answer them if we don't. I'm not sure we want "correct" answers, just good ones.

Chris Newfield said...

thanks Xicano -i woke up realizing the access questions got tacked to the other list. But they're equally educational and social: Why should Berkeley, to pick just one campus, NOT go to 18% or more non-resident students, given UC's mission? How will a full proportion of undocumented students be admitted and then brought into the center of university life? I'll stop before I get carried away.

Susan said...

To build off Allan's comment: there might be an additional question for faculty, about the obligations (to students, the state, and?) that come with teaching at a public university. If there is a benefit to the state/public from our research, in what way does that differentiate our work from that of colleagues at private institutions? I have heard this in private often, but I don't think it's been as publicly visible as it could be.

Chris Newfield said...

yes I agree w/ Allan & Susan on this too. there's been quite a bit of email interest in getting these questions answered, so if you have answers to 1 or 2 of these please do send them

Anonymous said...

Well... one very old perspective from my father's generation... circa 1920's and 1930's was that they viewed Berkeley as far more meritocratic than the privates. They viewed the purpose of the privates to be a mechanism for wealthy never do wells to get a degree.

From today's perspective, what that really meant a broader variety of whites went to Berkeley than Stanford or the College of the Pacific.

Today the privates can and do cherry pick students in many different dimensions... it should be up to public universities to dig out, with a rigorous and fair process that compensates for the huge discrepancies in K-12 education in California, the most talented from all communities.

Let me add an odd question... frequency of human interaction driven by wireless, web, etc, is at a huge peak measured over all of human history. Seems to me the necessity for the humanities has never been greater. A counterpoint is that attention spans are at an all time low. Well, there is an obvious argument for what the education (and certain research) in humanities can do. The deep, sustained sort of education that has kind of been consigned to small liberal arts institutions seems to me to find a very natural position.

The deep kind of intuition and understanding of science & math is very similar. Perhaps science has a certain component of memorization and rote learning that could be consigned the the MOOC system. But the deep, integrative, sustained interrogation of nature still falls naturally into face-to-face instruction at universities.

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