UC Faculty Defend Public Education


Last week I posted to this blog “A Statement of Principles for Choosing New University of California Chancellors,” issued by the Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA), an AAUP partner organization.  Yesterday, at UC Berkeley, where more than a dozen students, faculty, staff, alumni and foundation representatives serving on the chancellor search committee will meet for the first time tomorrow, four prominent leaders of the Berkeley Faculty Association (BFA) published an op-ed piece in the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper, reiterating the statement’s principles. Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown, Associate Professor of English Colleen Lye, Professor of History James Vernon, Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan, and Professor of Sociology Michael Burawoy begin:

The tide is turning: There is growing consensus across political lines about the imperative of reinvesting in public infrastructure and public education. In no other way is it possible to improve the quality of our public education system and recover its promise of equal opportunity for students and research in the public interest.

The people of California clearly want a public university that works for them. They have called for an end to tuition hikes, unequal access, skyrocketing student debt, misplaced spending priorities, bloated executive compensation and extensive reliance on donor projects and corporate partnerships that deform the university’s public mission.

Within the university, faculty, staff and students have suffered severe erosions of local control and local workforces; in their place have emerged expensive and inept experts, inefficient services, temporary managers and outsourcing. Never have university management and provision of services been more expensive; never in recent decades has the university been run more poorly, featured more unequal access and compensation or suffered a worse public reputation.

It is time for change.

After endorsing the CUCFA principles the BFA leaders go a step further and conclude by nominating a candidate for the position of Berkeley Chancellor being vacated by Nicholas Dirks:

We propose Robert Reich as an excellent candidate for chancellor. Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy in the Goldman School at UC Berkeley, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, distinguished public intellectual and commentator, author of best-selling books on the economy, politics and education, inspiration for the film “Inequality for All” and a firm believer in public education and the public interest.

While it is unclear whether Reich will apply for or accept the position, the suggestion drew attention in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Reich “symbolizes all that is good and great about Berkeley,” Burawoy told the Chronicle. “He represents an alternative vision of the university, away from the treacherous path of the last two decades.”  As the Occupy movement surged in 2011, the Chronicle noted, Reich “delivered a speech about social justice on the Mario Savio steps of Sproul Plaza that drew more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff. He’s since been a visible presence on campus, joining such student efforts as the fight to win higher wages for fast-food workers.”

Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara English professor Chris Newfield yesterday posted a piece on the Remaking the University blog inspired by the CUCFA statement.  He notes that “CUCFA calls on officials to hire only those candidates who ‘support the value of public education'” and that the group’s statement defines the essential elements of such support.  But Newfield goes on to examine recent trends which suggest that, as the BFA leaders put it, “the tide is turning” with respect to the meaning of public higher education.

He writes:

CUCFA’s definition of “public” reflects national and international trends that have been slower to develop in California than elsewhere.  One is deprivatization. I first heard this term used to describe current changes in Poland’s university system, but deprivatization is implicit in the Free College movement launched in U.S. politics by Bernie Sanders. The premise is that people can analyze the effects of privatization, and, if found negative, can lower tuition rather than raise it, raise public funding rather than lower it, reduce student debt rather than increase it, and expand research cost coverage rather than shrink it. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and the way here is particularly obvious.

A second trend is postmanagerialism–or so I’ll call it here. Large private and public organizations now operate under widespread cynicism about their good will and effectiveness. Decreasing proportions of U.S. residents think corporations are on their side.  Something similar is happening to public universities, some of which, like UC and CUNY, have tripped themselves up in a series of scandals that shed doubt on their devotion to public service.   You don’t have to be familiar with the literature about learning organizations to believe that the low-information professor and the cognitively isolated senior manager each undermine universities.  Universities need smarter human systems that we have now, and strong shared governance can help bring that about.

A third trend the CUCFA statement reflects is the demand for epistemological diversity, driven in large part by academics working in the global South.  Societies are both internally diverse and quite different from each other, and need their university research to reflect variable demands–say for non-GMO pest-resistant crops, or for democratic theory that does not assume constitutional unity or a common language.  University diversity has, in recent decades, been undermined by audit culture, which norms universities towards “best practices” represented by the institutions that dominate global rankings, whose template is Anglo-American.  As part of its normal operation, audit introduces quantitative management practices that make collaborative governance seem unnecessary: a manager doesn’t need to know her faculty and departments and make complex judgments based in large part on informal knowledge, but just have research output measures, impact factors, and rankings of departments and faculty members.  Such metrics make personal interactions seem superfluous, and intellectual diversity unnecessary.  Such standardization is now being contested and is likely gradually to be pushed aside. It will be replaced by multidimensional forms of evidence and judgment that require more rather than less interaction among members of universities, and more openness to one another.  CUCFA’s push for shared governance makes epistemological diversity easier to achieve.

Our current, highly unrigorous definitions of the public university make sense if the future is going to extend the past two decades.  But it won’t. The public university going forward will have to rediscover the effectiveness of shared resources, mutualized costs, and collaborative governance. It will need to discover much stronger meanings of public.  If this is right, then CUCFA’s statement is ahead of the curve.

2 thoughts on “UC Faculty Defend Public Education

  1. Pingback: Berkeley Students Call for Transparency in Chancellor Search | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Reich: “Public Higher Education is Dying in the U.S.” | ACADEME BLOG

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