Executives and Political Responsibility

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Alumni, students and employees of the University of California have been shaking their heads in dismay since Sept. 24 when an interview with UC President Mark Yudof appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The interview was somewhat of a farce, with Yudof comparing the university to a cemetery, joking about why he has a higher salary than President Obama, and expressing a clueless attitude about fundraising.

However, there was one exchange in the interview that revealed an important truth about the political culture in which we live. It provides a useful "teaching moment" for those who care about the excellence and accessibility of the university.

When asked whether he blamed Governor Schwarzenegger for the situation of the university, Yudof replied, "I do not," and then went on to state that the crisis in higher education is "systemic," it has to do with the graying of America, large shifts in the culture and so on. In other words, this is something no one is really responsible for; it's too big for any one person to try and fight.

Yudof's cheery resignation in the face of catastrophe is an exemplary instance of a public leader trying to avoid the mention of political responsibility. For the reality is that the defunding of public education is not an impersonal, "systemic" effect of some large cosmic machine. It has been carefully set in place over several decades by leaders and intellectuals on the political right who have worked tirelessly to convince us that everything, from Little League to the education of the soul, must immediately be "economically productive."

Those forms of knowledge that are not immediately "profitable" (by next week's stock market report, at the latest) are understood to be trivial at best, obstructionist at worst. These activists have taken specific aim at the notion of a "public good"-our shared responsibility to support aspects of society that may not benefit us directly as individuals-by casting it as a boondoggle, as an illusion to be brushed away by the "inevitable" forward march of privatization (private roads, private health plans, private police, gated communities, private universities).

There was nothing inevitable or "systemic" about this destruction of the public sphere. The public good has not been dismantled in similar ways in most of the countries that are traditionally closest to the U.S. in traditions and values (Canada, France, the Scandinavian countries, not even the U.K., despite Thatcherism).

It is a specifically American phenomenon, quite recent, and its history is intertwined with the history of the American Right. It was hatched in think tanks, expressed in policy papers and put into place by lawmakers. Californians bought into this demolition job, first by passing Proposition 13, which cut the tax base that had traditionally supported public education, and then by repeatedly dodging the uncomfortable truth that public services have to be paid for by all of us, even if no one of us personally uses all of them.

Schwarzenegger's refusal to address any increase in state revenues through tax increases (the solution implemented by several other states) is one extreme version of this "anti-public" stance. The fact that leaders of both parties in Sacramento are willing to balance the budget on the back of education is one of its consequences.

Thus the form taken by the budgetary crisis at the university is not simply a blip in some grand "systemic" shift. To suggest as much, as Yudof does, implicitly renders those who brought it about blameless, and those who seek to fight it powerless. Rather, this particular budget mess is the consequence of specific actions, often over time, by specific actors-the extremist Republicans, the bullying Governor, the ineffectual Democrats-who have diverted our sense of common purpose.

The first step toward reviving the common good is to recognize the responsibility of those who have sought to wreck it. In this sense, Yudof's interview performance has a moral lesson. It can teach members of the UC community to be suspicious of explanations that elide personal responsibility. And it can help us clarify the terms of the dialogue we need to have with alumni, parents and state leaders as we try to restore state support for the UC system.


Timothy Hampton is a campus professor of French and comparative literature. Reply at [email protected]

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