BY MICHAEL MERANZE
The following is reposted with permission from the Remaking the University blog. Michael Meranze is professor of history at UCLA. He co-authors Remaking the University with Christopher Newfield, professor of english at UC, Santa Barbara.
The farce that was MiloFest has now frittered away into failure. Of course, that will not be the last time that the right-wing attempts to undermine the authority and status of higher education under the guise of standing up for free thought. The challenge will be ongoing.
At the same time, we should not allow the fireworks over free speech to divert us from other important attacks on the educational mission of universities. These attacks are driven not by the ideologies of the alt-right but by the ideologies of austerity.
One classic case of the damage brought about by privatization-driven austerity was revealed amidst the hubbub over free speech week at Berkeley. While most attention was focused on the spectacles of Shapiro and Yiannopoulos, the Daily Cal reported that the Christ administration is proposing to end the funding for the tremendously successful Berkeley Connect program as part of its budget cutting plans.
Berkeley Connect is an innovative program that provides academic mentoring to undergraduates and fellowship support to graduate students. Undergraduates who join the program are linked with a graduate student adviser who helps them navigate their academic experience. Students take part in small discussion groups and workshops, and pursue a specially designed curriculum. Students overwhelmingly praise the program and it has been shown to improve their academic performance. Over 10,000 have participated. Even though the program had its campus support cut last year from $2M to $1M dollars it still was able to support 1200 undergraduates while providing 29 graduate fellowships.
What makes this proposed elimination so striking is that the Christ Administration appears willing to sacrifice precisely the sort of program that Berkeley claims it wants to promote because it improves the quality of undergraduate education. Berkeley Connect began in 2010 as a result of a donation from the father of an English Department alumnus. In 2013, recognizing its success, the campus agreed to fund its extension to additional departments. It now serves 13 departments from Math, Computational Biology and Physics on the one hand to History, Architecture and African-American Studies on the other. So the Christ administration is proposing to eliminate a highly successful program, built upon a commitment of campus funds and the support of appreciative parent of an alumnus, and that has demonstrably improved both undergraduate and graduate education. And just for the record, the amount going to Berkeley Connect this year is approximately the same as what the University has recently spent on the Shapiro and Yiannopoulos events and less than 1/5 of the continued subvention of the chronically mismanaged Intercollegiate Athletics department.
To be sure, the particular brutalism of Berkeley’s imposition of austerity is not due to the campus leadership alone. UCOP is demanding the pace of deficit reduction and therefore making it more difficult to balance the budget without affecting innovative educational programs. But when the campus announces that they have decided to exclude fellowships from the chopping block and then turns around and makes a decision that will cut nearly 30 graduate fellowships, one has to wonder about how believable the administration’s claims really are.
Indeed, as Chris [Newfield] pointed out in his recent budget post, Berkeley has shown no sign of an open and deep rethinking of their budget strategies and priorities of the last 15 years. Beginning with the Birgeneau and Breslauer administration, Berkeley has been announcing new and greater privatization schemes while allowing for a dramatic expansion in administration even as funding for core educational activities has become increasingly strained. Although it is true that in this year’s budget plan, administrative cuts are serious, they don’t make up for the imbalance in spending over the last several administrations.
If the Christ Administration eliminates Berkeley Connect it will be both a terrible step and a canary in a coal mine. The Chancellor has insisted that she is determined to protect instruction. If she is, then she will insist that her administration find the funds to maintain Berkeley Connect. If she does not, it will be another example of the slide of Berkeley from the days when its headlines were about educational innovation to these days, when we hear mostly about rankings declines and athletic department mismanagement.