A Private University System of The Future?

Harmony Larson/Staff

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Correction Appended

In Imperial San Francisco, Gray Brechin highlights the University of California's early history as an imperial "City of Learning" perched on the Pacific. Although its vision of glory was tied to American ascendancy in the Asia Pacific, the university was founded, above all, to serve the people of California. This contradiction between state-supported democratic "opportunities for education offered to members of all classes" and a governance structure yielding authority over its educational mission to "the state's financial and manufacturing moguls"-between competing public and private conceptions of its institutional purpose-manifests starkly today. Yet the question before us is less whether the university has cast its lot with big business than whether it itself should operate as big business. With the fate of California's public higher education system hanging in the balance, an ominous word permeates discussion of its direction: privatization.

With foreseeable student fee hikes of 30 percent as well as a turn to out-of-state admissions and online courses to generate revenue-all on top of ill-timed raises for top-earning executives-the university is hardly recognizable as a non-profit educational system. Under UC President Mark Yudof's leadership, the university continues careening off-course, public in name only. Having overseen repeated tuition increases as University of Minnesota president, Yudof was surely hired to bring similar know-how to the university. Yet if California students are priced out of a UC education, what will Yudof's legacy be? On the one hand, Yudof protests he cannot redistribute funds to cover the shortfall in general academic needs. On the other, having gained unprecedented emergency powers from the UC Regents, a move befitting an imperial president, he wields discretionary control over the UC budget. In a system housing the likes of John Yoo, Yudof's contravention of the university's democratic principle of shared governance might come as little surprise. Outraged, even so, 96 percent of UC workers-staff, faculty, students-who participated in the vote delivered a resounding vote of no confidence in his leadership last month.

Yudof sees the university as big business. He has lauded UC research professors, administrators and senior executives as the "Tom Cruises of the academic world," in his view, stars whose marquee value drives success. Recently at a Santa Barbara event, Yudof likened the university to the Small Business Association. According to The Santa Barbara Independent, he compared UC researchers to small businesses, explaining that patents generate the university's revenues. In Yudof's rarefied understanding of the public university, human capital is narrowly defined as research talent and CEO expertise. Unsurprisingly, the costs of privatization are disproportionately borne not by high-level administrators, some of whose salaries have increased, but by the most vulnerable employees-librarians, lecturers, staff-and students from underrepresented backgrounds. This is the reality.

Using consumer-driven marketing strategies, the university has sought to burnish its image through capital improvements-bigger stadiums, state-of-the-art sports facilities, new buildings-while myopically tying student instruction and services to soft money and temporary budgets. Although teaching, research and public service are enshrined in the university's three-fold mission, education and learning are structured as a safety valve and consequently the first to go in hard times. With the curriculum increasingly determined by private funding, programs lacking wealthy sponsors or corporate donors fall by the wayside. Last year, for example, UC Berkeley heralded the opening of its privately funded $46.4 million C.V. Starr East Asian Library. Behind the scenes, however, administrators proposed slashing popular Asian language programs by more than fifty percent and reshuffled their priorities only after students waged a massive grassroots protest and trans-Pacific media campaign. Yet the message was clear: Rather than train students to read in Asian languages, the administration prioritized architectural splendor over meaningful education.

Promoters of privatization frequently cite efficiency as their rationale. Yet how is depriving students of a top-notch education a worthwhile investment? In August, George Breslauer revealed that the first senior administrative casualty of the fiscal crisis would be the Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning. His insistence that "teaching is a core part of our campus mission" therefore rang hollow. Evidence of teaching and learning's demotion can be seen system-wide. Recent reductions in course offerings and scalebacks in degree requirements have led to drastic elimination of lecturing positions, hence some programs of study entirely. Lecturers face outright layoffs. As disposable workers whose livelihood is tied to the state budget, adjunct faculty-who teach core courses in all disciplines and have the greatest face-time with students-are indispensable to the realization of the university's educational mission.

If there is an opportunity at the heart of this budget crisis, it is a critical rethinking of the democratic value of public education. The university must-to borrow from UCLA professor John Duncan-"stop acting like the Walmarts of the world" in order to lead the way. In 1960, the university and the State Board of Education commissioned a master plan promising access to higher education to all Californians regardless of economic means-a plan intended to foster an informed, innovative workforce, which would in turn revitalize the economy and ultimately more than pay for itself. Although we should not romanticize the master plan whose tiered design reinforced class divisions, it importantly aimed to recognize free, top-quality public education as a right, not a privilege.

UC administrators have lost sight of their accountability to the people of California. At a moment when the profit-driven private model has come under sharp reevaluation on fronts as varied as prisons, utilities, war, social security and health care, Yudof, by advancing his conception of the university along unabashedly market lines, would privatize the nation's greatest public university beyond the reach of most Californians-effectively denying entire generations access to affordable first-rate education and decent futures. This is a step in precisely the wrong direction. Privatization is not the way out of the California public higher education crisis. It is the way down.

Correction: Monday, September 21, 2009
Clarification: An earlier version of this op-ed may have implied that 96 percent of all UC workers voted that they had no confidence UC President Mark Yudof. Specifically, 96 percent of the participants in the vote delivered this vote of no-confidence.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Christine Hong is an asst. professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz. Katherine Lee is a lecturer for the College Writing Program. Reply at [email protected]

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