UC Berkeley Is Losing Its Essence

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In its heyday, the University of Abidjan was a grand institution, attracting students from throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb to earn their degrees. Côte d'Ivoire, with its twenty-eight percent foreign-born population, was the West African region's hub of economic activity. The sense of Ivoirian exceptionalism was pervasive. But this dream was built on shoddy foundations: a heavy dependence on borrowed French finance, military and personnel was the first administration's tacit trade-off for stability and economic growth. The generation set toinherit the fruits of their parent's labors is always the first to taste its rot, and rotten it was. When the creditors of the late eighties cameto collect, they forced its leadership to gut the very programs needed to ensure the integrity of the country and the hope of its youth. Global finance institutions justified divestment in social services to balance budgets that were no longer in place to serve a people.

It is a familiar story, always repeated safely distant from what it might foretell because after all, that is Africa. While what happens in Africa may stir humanist sentiment, we do not apply its lessons to the United States where citizens are born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In what has become the quintessential national story, Americans realize those rights in two ways. First-generation Americans do it through hard work, hard work whose central payoff is a future for their children that they themselves could only imagine. The rest of us do it via the meritocracy pledged by our superior system of higher education. The United States is the destination for those looking to work or study their way to a better life for them and their families.

Or is it? As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, the world's preeminentpublic university, I am finding troubling similarities between concerns of the student body at my home institution and those of my object of study: the no-longer-so-young adult population of Abidjanais who find themselves on the wrong end of an ever-widening gap between their imagined futures and the present state of social decay. The wasted lives of so many thirty-something Ivoirians drove my research. I saw students ambitious, intelligent and driven, just like me and my peers, but whose opportunity structure had crumbled around them. All for reasons beyond their control, they were half-way through programs going nowhere, dropped out, receiving degrees no longer recognized because the institution's quality had so deteriorated. The best of the public had been privatized and restricted to the few, while what was left fell into complete neglect.

It is this loss of control that the past year of UC protests, culminating in the May hunger strike that addressed a range of issues from budget cuts to the recent Arizona immigration legislation, have sought to halt. We recognize that now is the time to end the trend toward exclusion and privatization at the expense of "access and excellence," the driving forces that in the beginning of the 2008 academic year UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau wrote to be the "essence of Berkeley." In this same paper he went on to say that "our public character gives us a competitive edge, in that we are arguably the only university in the top echelon that combines comprehensive excellence with broad access to students from all socioeconomic levels."

As a graduate student instructor this semester, I found myself inspired by the face of a new generation of Cal undergraduates: students who were restarting their lives after a painful divorce, working mothers who also found time to be student-athletes, students who took years to enroll because of unresolved problems of having entered this country illegally.

These intelligent, hard-working and deserving young (and not-so-young)adults were personalities to tack onto what must surely be one of Berkeley's proudest statistics: thirty percent of each year's entering class are first-generation college-goers, many from immigrant backgrounds.

But as one sign raised by a student of color proclaimed during the September 24 walkout last year, "UC me now, you won't see me after the fee hikes!"

An institution like Berkeley is a vestige of truth in the American dream. It offers proof that our sense of American exceptionalism is in fact deserved. And it is a guarantee that the policies we enact uphold fundamental principles of a meritocratic system. At their core, those policies must recognize that social gains cannot proceed without acknowledging diversity as a strength to be encouraged, not rejected or penalized, and certainly not criminalized.

The experiences on the African continent offer lessons for the United States if it is humble and wise enough to listen. The economic crisis, the unconstrained dominance of finance institutions, and the emphatic push toward privatization as a necessary strategy to make amends is too closefor comfort to the structural adjustment policies imposed on African countries that crushed the economic, the social and the political like dominos. A growth model prioritizing an abstract economy over a growing number of real and struggling people is one built on shoddy foundations.

Instead we must ask how we can create a system that cultivates a next generation capable of questioning, demanding, and leading. We must askwhat tangible efforts are needed to ensure access and excellence, recognizing that the essence of American exceptionalism is predicated on the two going hand in hand.


Jordanna Matlon is a UC Berkeley student. Reply to [email protected]

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