Charles Reed, Assessment, and “The Great Mistake”


Charles Reed, former head of the now-dismantled Florida state university system and for sixteen years (1996-2012) Chancellor of the twenty-three-campus California State University (CSU), died this week at the age of 75.  Known to friend and foe alike as just “Charlie,” Reed was a highly controversial leader whose brusque, even bullying style was praised by some university trustees and politicians for its toughness and energy, but loathed by many faculty members, who often found the former high school quarterback uncouth and abusive.  The current CSU Chancellor, Timothy P. White, in a statement called Reed “a tenacious, passionate champion of public higher education.”  As a leader in the CSU system and my campus academic senates, I had occasion to work with Charlie on numerous occasions. I find much that is true about that statement.  For even among those of us who more often than not found ourselves tangling with him, there was a strong recognition that Charlie believed deeply, as do we, in the CSU as “the people’s university.”

Reed was on an admirable mission to expand enrollment, improve graduation rates, and facilitate intersegmental transfer, in good measure because he believed that doing so was the best way to serve formerly under-served and under-educated populations.  In his own way he was a great champion of diversity and accessibility and a tireless advocate for students.  For instance, he initiated and provided resources for a program of “super Sundays,” in which CSU administrators and faculty recruited students at more than a hundred predominantly African-American churches throughout California.  Some dismissed this as a gimmick, and perhaps it was, but it was a real effort and was welcomed in the community.  And I can personally testify that Charlie was indeed passionate about it.

It has been said that Reed’s greatest legacy may be his efforts to manage nearly $1 billion in state budget cuts after the crash of 2008.  “I may have done some of the best work in my 40 years as an educator these last five years figuring out how to continue to provide access and fund the system, keep the doors open,” Reed told the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of his retirement in 2012.  “It’s been a real struggle, and what I’ve seen is a lack of political will and a lack of political leadership in California.”

William G. Tierney, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, said, ““To Reed’s credit, he was able to get all of the coalitions and unions to accept a very tough budget, and no one went on strike and classes were still held.”

In his shoot-from-the-hip style and gruff manner Donald Trump has sometimes reminded me of Charlie Reed, but I am more than certain that Reed found Trump as appalling as I do.  I’m certain as well that he would have faced the privatization agenda of someone like Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos with both horror and resolute opposition.  Yet, at the same time, it must be acknowledged that Reed was also himself a privatizer, embracing the “liberal” version of the corporate agenda with enthusiasm and gusto.

Tierney called Reed “more a steady-as-it-goes chancellor,” who failed to find creative ways to redesign the system so more students could attend despite budget constraints.  “For the CSU to assume the mantle of national leadership that we all want for it, the system has to have someone who will be transformative,” Tierney said.  For all the publicity he garnered, and despite his legendary work ethic, Reed was not that person.

Nowhere can the limitations of Reed’s approach to higher education be seen more clearly than in his overly contentious relationship with the faculty.  Like many liberal corporatizers, Charlie often saw the faculty as an obstacle to his goals, an entrenched interest rather than the heart of the enterprise.  Early in his tenure at the CSU he antagonized faculty members when at a public speech at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo he charged that CSU professors only work three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  He would deny saying that, but there were too many witnesses, including the chair of the campus senate and a prominent dean, later a provost, who could vouch otherwise.  The remark seemed to encapsulate a contempt for faculty work that would carry into repeated and unnecessarily difficult contract battles with the AAUP-affiliated California Faculty Association, which represents both tenure-track and contingent faculty across the system.  Indeed, as a member of the CFA bargaining team for nine years I came to see Charlie as in key ways an obstacle to achieving even the goals we shared with him.  On the other hand, he was a marvelous lightning rod.  We used to say that Charlie was the union’s best organizer, so much did he antagonize (often needlessly) our members.

Charlie once compared CSU faculty to our colleagues in the research-oriented University of California system, declaring that while UC professors were “show horses” we were “work horses.”  Given our work load, it was certainly true, but as one faculty wit put it at the time, “Show horse or work horse, we could all use some more oats.”

I experienced Reed’s hostility to faculty personally.  When the CSU academic senate nominated me and another colleague for service as the faculty representative on the system’s board of trustees (the law mandates that the senate provide the governor with two names, from which one will be appointed), then-governor Schwarzenegger refused to appoint either of us and for two years the position remained vacant.  I have no evidence to support the claim, but most faculty leaders thought Reed was behind the move, since both nominees had been union activists and had personally tangled with the Chancellor.  Reed denied it, but at least one thing was certain: he didn’t lift a finger, nor did any member of the board that he largely controlled, to help.

“We felt like he [Reed] came in leading with his chin, ready for some kind of slug fest,” former CFA president Lillian Taiz told the Times in 2012. “The fundamental problem is, we don’t share the same vision for the system and that has moved from a model that more resembled a privatized [corporate] university.”

CFA leaders, Reed responded, “don’t represent the rank and file of our really good faculty out there every day working hard, doing really good things with our students,” he said. “With the union, we have a group that want to fight, that want to demonize me for whatever reasons.”  Of course, events would prove over and over that Reed was wrong.  Most CSU faculty supported our union leaders, as indicated in repeated overwhelming votes to authorize strikes and in a one-day strike at the system’s East Bay and Dominguez Hills campuses.  But like most corporate types, Reed couldn’t see that our union was its members, the great majority of the faculty.

Early in his tenure at the CSU Charlie energetically championed the culture of “assessment,” promoted shamelessly (and most often mindlessly) by so many corporate “reformers,” foundations like Lumina, and some politicians.  As a result, CFA engaged in a long fight against a stream of ill-conceived proposals to institute administratively run “merit pay” schemes until, at long last (and hopefully forever) the trustees finally acknowledged the foolishness of the idea, especially given the increasingly limited budgets they had to work with.  But this was not before Charlie became indelibly linked in faculty minds with demands for the sort of time-consuming, unproductive, and soul-deadening assessment regime that has become all too common throughout higher education, especially in the community colleges.

In 1999, San Diego State University Professor Jerry Farber (now retired) responded with a remarkable open letter that, had social media been available at the time would no doubt have gone totally viral.  As it was, it circulated widely among CSU faculty and was posted on the Irascible Professor blog of Mark Shapiro, a CSU Fullerton faculty member (also now retired).  It read in part:

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, please Charlie, we don’t do enough evaluating, we don’t do enough ranking.  Neither, dearest Charlie, do we ourselves get ranked enough–get evaluated enough.  Charlie, Charlie, hear my plea: there’s not enough accountability in our lives!

Let us have more assessment!  Let there be more ranking, more committees, more meetings, more forms, more dossiers, more charts, more tables.  And let there be less time–less time pissed away, Charlie, pissed away in libraries, in classrooms, in laboratories.  Let there be less thinking, Charlie Reed!  Less thinking and more–many more!–year-end reports, clean, bound, thick.  Thick, Charlie.  Let there be thick reports, reports bristling with charts, reports weighing ten pounds each and with fine gold logos on their vinyl spines, stretching on shelves in Long Beach, Sacramento, Washington, stretching for miles, Charlie!  And let them be dusted.  And grant that there be committees to assess the dusting.

Save me, Charles Reed!  I spent four hours yesterday afternoon preparing for class, when I could have been reading thirty colleagues’ applications for merit raises.  I spent an afternoon the day before in the library, Charlie–reading–when I could have been in an assessment meeting assessing things.   And had I not already wasted that morning in classrooms teaching students, when it would have sufficed merely to certify their outcomes instead?  Charlie, liberate our students from seat time, from real time.  Let seat time become screen time.  Phase out face-to-face, and let place become no place.

And forgive us, Charles Reed, for not being assessed enough, for never being assessed enough.  Forgive us those moments in our lives when we were not accountable.

Forgive us for only having been assessed by scores of professors, by national testing services, by examination boards, by admission boards; forgive us for only having undergone the scrutiny of implacable, dark-robed doctoral committees.

Forgive us for only being assessed by our students in every single one of our classes.  Forgive us for only being assessed by colleagues and administrators:
when that we are hired,
when that we come up for retention,
when that we come up for tenure,
when that we come up for promotion,
when that we apply for a sabbatical or research grant,
when that we undergo post-tenure review–
for only being assessed by members of our profession whenever we submit anything whatsoever for publication, apply for a fellowship, apply for a grant;
for only being assessed in our departments by teams of faculty from other universities, and for only being assessed in our universities by accreditation teams.

It goes on like that deliciously for several more paragraphs, but you get the point.  (The full letter is apparently no longer available on the Internet, but can be accessed through the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine” here.)

Sometimes it seemed as if Reed’s antagonism toward faculty was a way of displacing the disappointment he must have faced in his efforts to win state support for the CSU.  For while Reed was, as I’ve said, a genuine advocate for public higher education he was, in the end, not all that effective at the job.  When Reed arrived in California a series of complex funding formulas developed decades earlier, which had ensured at least adequate funding, were already in tatters.  Indeed, California’s disgraceful abandonment of the principles of its 1960 Master Plan, with guaranteed accessible, affordable (tuition free), and high quality higher education to all qualified applicants, was well advanced.  Reed’s response, however, was not to challenge this baleful trend but to throw the formulas (and ultimately the Master Plan) out for good.  Instead, the CSU trustees would each year submit an optimistic and purportedly “bold” budget request to the state, designed largely to appease faculty, staff and students frustrated by the system’s seeming unwillingness to fight for us.  But then Reed would negotiate a more “realistic” deal.  He entered into a series of one-sided agreements with California’s governors that would “guarantee” a given level (always inadequate) of funding in exchange for greater independence from state oversight and the fulfillment of certain “performance targets,” mainly associated with enrollment and graduation rates.  And then, every time, there would be a state budget hole and the governor would break the agreement, while still holding CSU to its unrealistic targets.  As a result, the CSU would scrimp on faculty hiring and salaries (but not on administrators) and seek all sorts of new external funding “opportunities.”  (My favorite of these was a boneheaded plan to build a shopping mall, complete with multiplex movie theater, on the CSU Fresno campus that ultimately came to naught.)

In short, Reed sought to make the CSU “run more like a business,” albeit perhaps not so aggressively as some Republicans might have done.  (Reed came to higher education after serving as chief-of-staff to Florida Democratic governor Bob Graham.)  His was in the final analysis a version of the privatizing corporate agenda for higher education that UC Santa Barbara professor Christopher Newfield has called The Great Mistake.  In his recent and essential book of that title Newfield argues against the conventional wisdom — embraced, perhaps a bit reluctantly, by Reed — that says “public colleges will never again have the public funding they used to assume, so they must economize, commercialize, marketize, and financialize.  They must be closer to business and be more like business.  They must focus on multiple revenue streams.”

Instead, argues Newfield, “Today’s problems do not reflect a failure to introduce market thinking but the effects of its long-term presence.”  Specifically, Newfield demonstrates that rather than insufficient public support causing tuition hikes and commercialization it is precisely the willingness of public college and university leaders like Reed to raise tuition and seek new “revenue streams” that has allowed politicians to cut funding with relative impunity.

Charlie Reed’s tenure at the CSU did not represent the worst example of Newfield’s “great mistake,” but it certainly did exemplify it.  I can recall with horror one conversation I had with Reed in which I and another campus faculty leader were virtually begging him to provide needed funds to our campus.  For some reason that triggered one of Charlie’s patented rants.  Wealthy Californians, he told us (well, in his usual manner he pretty much yelled it at us), were no longer willing to pay any more in taxes.  They were, he claimed, already leaving the state to escape taxation.  (This was and is demonstrably false.)  We would have to make do with what we have.  I was speechless.  Later, when it was too late, I realized how I should have responded: “Yes, Charlie, I’ve walked those mean streets of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, La Jolla, Hillsborough, and Piedmont (all extremely wealthy California communities).  I’ve seen the suffering caused by taxing the rich.  Of course, how could we not ask our students, working multiple jobs, and their parents, scrimping to support them, to sacrifice a bit more so that those poor overtaxed rich folks might buy a third or fourth home?”

Of course, in fairness, Charlie was in his own way as sympathetic to those students and those parents as I.  But his acquiescence to the sort of political  “realism” that is the conventional wisdom led him, in the end, to shift the burden of education on to the very people he wanted — I believe genuinely — to assist and support.  In Reed’s last ten years, student fees increased 167%.  In his waning months in office, Reed and the trustees received widespread condemnation after they approved a $400,000 compensation package for the new San Diego State president — $100,000 more than his predecessor — at the same meeting at which tuition was increased by 12%  And perhaps this represents the essence of what Newfield has called “the great mistake.”

One thought on “Charles Reed, Assessment, and “The Great Mistake”

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Posts of 2016 | ACADEME BLOG

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