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Struggling to keep the promise of Berkeley

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropology professor | December 20, 2011

The normally docile faculty and well-behaved students who gathered at Sproul Plaza to observe a general strike in November were taken by surprise by the thwack of police clubs on flesh and bone. So was our former poet laureate, Robert Hass, whose soulful response to having been bludgeoned in the belly with a University of California policeman’s truncheon tells part of the tragic story. But why were faculty and students being knocked around and dragged by the hair by the campus police?

The crisis at the University of California is not about faculty and staff pay cuts (which we have had to swallow), faculty bonuses (they don’t exist), or academic perks (if they ever existed). Faculty at large public institutions like the University of California at Berkeley buy their own notebooks, pencils, and pens. Those who still use chalk steal it from their toddlers’ cubbies and bring it to class in their pockets. We use our own cellphones for business calls.

Faculty under pressure

University professors (unless they have a large research grant) have no secretaries to prepare their manuscripts for publication or the hundreds of letters of recommendation, the purgatorial price professors pay for the opportunity to teach and shape the next generation of scholars. We no longer write those letters on embossed university letterhead, also a thing of the past. Despite what you might think, professors at public universities grade most of their undergraduate student papers and all of their graduate student theses and dissertations without assistance.

University professors are dedicated, hard-working people, with largely old-time values. Most are not on the make or “on the market” for higher salaries and better perks. We’re there for the long haul, seeing graduate students through seven or eight years of specialized training.

The crisis at Berkeley is about the failed promise of reasonably attainable higher education. It is about the escalating costs of college that are turning a younger generation into debt-peons, and about the difficulty of obtaining jobs after graduation.

The current crisis is fundamentally about privatization and the dismantling of a national public treasure. The students and professors who were whacked by billy clubs want to preserve a grand public university that took a century to build to its present pre-eminence and is taking just a few years to destroy.

Held hostage to attacks on public institutions

Although public universities are under attack throughout the United States, the University of California is taking a particularly hard beating, metaphorically and literally. In California, the public university (the 10 campuses of UC, the state-college system, and the community colleges)—like public libraries and day-care centers—is being held hostage to citizens who have waged tax rebellions since 1978 and whose heirs still refuse to support any civic institution that doesn’t directly affect their private lives or needs. (“Who needs a public library?”; “Our children attend private schools”; “Public housing is a nuisance.”)

Consequently, our children are less literate, and our streets are filling up with homeless warriors returned from the battlefields of the Middle East. Meanwhile, state support for the University of California is steadily shrinking, undergraduate tuition has almost doubled since 2007, and classroom spaces once reserved for California residents are being sold to affluent students from out of state and abroad. Diversity is good for any institution, but a diversity limited to those who can buy it is not diversity at all.

Cut to the bone

Outsourcing is another survival strategy. The much-heralded agreement to open a Berkeley-Shanghai campus is one solution to bankruptcy, but will it help our struggling undergraduates—most of whom work double shifts, carrying a full plate of demanding courses and working at outside jobs more than 20 hours a week—defray the expenses of room and board and Wi-Fi?

Digital, long-distance learning is another vaunted solution, but what might work for basic language, math, and science classes won’t work for the give and take of face-to-face undergraduate classes, not to mention the hyperinteractiveness of science labs or the intellectually combative graduate seminars that teach students to think on their feet.

Public higher education is dying. As senior faculty retire, their positions and programs are going with them, not to be replaced. There is always talk about closing “expensive” departments: the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences in particular. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida recently declared that anthropologists were not needed in his state: “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.” On another occasion he said, “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.” And there are other signs of institutional decline, at least in California. Custodial staff, cut to the bone, do their best, but university hallways, stairwells, and bathrooms are unsanitary, elevators are out of order for six months at a time, and “smart” classrooms (those with PowerPoint and video capacity) are scarcer than hen’s teeth.

Against the backdrop of a deep recession, a failing war in Afghanistan, stalled efforts to overhaul American health care, the sudden appearance of the “new” working-class poor in shelters and food kitchens, why should anyone give a hoot about a crisis in public higher education?

Conflicting views on the role of a university

There are two views of the university. One is the university as a critical institution engaged in the political and social transformation of the society of which it is a part. The second sees the university as a cloister, a secular monastery of reclusive scribes and writers, safely removed from the influence of the larger society and the world. That view has been advanced most forcefully by President John Sexton of New York University, who has referred to the university as a “sacred space,” drawing on Cardinal Newman’s essay “The Idea of the University,” published in 1852. Newman described the university as a place for preserving and teaching “universal knowledge.”

But in truth the university has never been isolated. It always responds to external interests—sometimes for patronage and gain, sometimes for power and political clout.

Higher education also has the responsibility to support and drive economic growth, as it did so forcefully in California throughout most of the 20th century. During World War II, for example, UC served the war effort in ways that today would make many progressive professors cringe. After the war, the U.S. Department of State and the California legislature considered the public university a weapon—hence the tense and often faculty-contested incorporation of federally financed nuclear research at UC—as well as an engine for fueling economic and political prowess, through advancing technological dominance. Area-studies programs focusing on Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa were developed to protect American interests and to keep our educated citizens informed of foreign affairs.

But the public university is hamstrung if state government and its citizens won’t support it. Its once proud and powerful influence is shrinking partly through lack of financial support and partly through threats to academic freedom. For example, the legal Catch-22s within “homeland security” expose visiting professors and scholars from other countries to invasive screening and background checks. Many are denied entry without just cause. Others receive their visas so late that they cannot attend the conferences at which they were scheduled to speak or accept the postdoctoral research fellowships offered to them. Thus we lose the contributions of some of the world’s most gifted students and scholars, diminishing our capacity to understand other societies and cultures and to see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. Global intellectual exchange on our campuses is in grave danger.

Meanwhile, the infiltration of corporate business models into every aspect of academic life has led to the devaluation of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are seen either as luxuries or intellectual enemies of the global economy. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust noted in 2009 the growing dominance of economic justifications for the existence of universities, to the exclusion of its other missions, such as fostering a broad, liberal education, disinterested scholarship, and social citizenship. Higher education, she wrote, is not about delivering a commodity—a university degree—but about fostering public good. Universities are meant to produce skepticism as well as knowledge. They should afflict the comfortable but unexamined notions that often undermine democratic societies. Universities, said Faust, should be “creative and unruly places, safe spaces for dissent, allowing for a polyphony of disparate voices.”

Struggling to keep the promise of Berkeley

The prospects are grim, but Berkeley faculty and students are struggling to keep their promise—of an open, free, independent, and diverse public institution—to the people of California, even while the public has not kept its promises to them. It took a faculty rebellion in 1919-20 to force the California legislature and UC regents to recognize the Academic Senate and its role in shared governance of the university. Clark Kerr, Berkeley’s chancellor from 1952 to 1958, fought against the firing of faculty who refused to sign the anti-communist loyalty oath the regents required employees to sign during the McCarthy era. And Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien fought against the regents’ 1995 ban on affirmative action in undergraduate admissions by raising more than a billion dollars, part of which was used to recruit and prepare disadvantaged minorities for admission to the Berkeley campus.

Berkeley students started the free-speech movement in 1964, and students and faculty fought against military recruitment on campus during the Vietnam War, held anti-apartheid divestment strikes, and fought for affirmative action. Not all these struggles were successful, but all of them were worthy fights.

Today faculty and students are trying to prevent tuition increases that would erode a public university and change it into a public-private enterprise. They are also committed to preventing further police brutality against demonstrators and protecting their constitutional right of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Nonviolent resistance has lost some of its luster in recent decades, overshadowed by the “war against terror” and a resurgence of what used to be called authoritarianism. Faculty members tend to embrace a decorous civility. Civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised to be accommodating. But now is not the time for accommodation.

Cross-posted from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Comments to “Struggling to keep the promise of Berkeley

  1. The lament about the challenges facing professors at a fine institution like UC Berkeley seems to repeat the “cut to the bone” phrase. Part of the problem with all public institutions, be it public universities, fireman, or policeman, is that the Defined Benefit pension plans must change. We are out on the hook as taxpayers for 50% to 100% of a public employees salary when they retire. It would be better to switch to a Defined Contribution Plan, and future generations of California taxpayers would be spared the anguish of seeing cities and higher learning institutions going broke.

    The stranglehold that California public unions have on our state must be broken.

  2. I am completely agree with Anthony St. John ’63 that “California has far too many undereducated citizens who are unable to take an interest, study the issues, listen and discuss all views and demand that that our politicians meet the needs of We”.

    We really need to look at what is the quality of our society first, we need to improve it and then we can take care of our interests as one.

  3. Don’t believe the hype. UC Berkeley professors, researchers, and successful students use neither their alleged academic freedom nor their fsm free speech. Today’s story quoting Kristie Boering’s research announcement definitively linking chemical fertlizer and atmospheric NO2 concluded with a completely unnecessary, unsupported, apologetic intimating that significant reduction or elimination of the use of chemical fertilizer is out of the question. UCB Berkeley researchers regularly self-censor and in the process censor others.

  4. The problem with the California political system is rooted in the decades long decision to limit the ability of local government to raise property taxes. True that no one wants their taxes increased, but local taxes should be used for local projects (Prop 13). Using state taxes collected to pay for projects that don’t affect individuals within their community is a real problem.

  5. Strong, persuasive essay!

    But–and this is totally off-point, but where else can I say this on this blog site?–I just noticed how very few of the posts on this site are written by women professors. To assure myself that I wasn’t seeing things, I counted: of the sixty-three or so blog posts that appear when one clicks on a topic (“Arts, Culture, & Humanities”), only eight are written by women.

    What gives? I don’t attend Cal (my daughter did). Surely, there are more women teachers than those numbers suggest. Why are they not more of a presence on this blog?

    Yet one more example of ‘struggling to keep the promise of Berkeley’…!

  6. Political contributions combined with short terms in office along with term limits are killing the ability of lawmakers to push real change. Time in office should be changed from 2 to 5 years. This can help lawmakers focus on big picture issues rather than worry about where reelection contributions are coming from.

  7. The California political system has encouraged voter referendums. Which sounds good, but over the last decade or so has gone haywire with all these propositions. That is one of the main causes of gridlock in the state. A law gets passed by the legislature then a proposition is put in front of voters to over turn it and then the opposition challenges in court…..and REPEAT! No wonder the state is billions in the hole!

  8. As tough as things are California does have a bright future in several industries. The software, bio tech , and green industries are basically based out of California. The green and bio tech industries are still maturing and have a lot of opportunity to create jobs for Californians.

  9. As a California community college anthropology professor, I share your concerns. We’ve been cut to the bone, and we’re watching tuitions skyrocket. Not only that, but the oversight is becoming ominous. No more Magic, Witchcraft & Religion – it sounds too fluffy, too lacking in rigor. No more Anthropology of Science Fiction – even though it allows an unparalleled opportunity for self-reflection. Pretty soon we’ll be down to one or two core classes that compete for funding with an English department that does little but teach grammar. But that’s OK – there will still be plenty of jobs out there for Californians, provided they like picking stuff or bathing senior citizens.

    William Doonan
    Sacramento City College

  10. Too much special interest. Too much political contributions. Too much favors. Makes for a disaster in governance as witnessed by the citizens of California!

  11. Stop pointing your fingers, look at yourselves in the mirror first and take responsibility for restoring California political, economic, social and environmental systems to meet the immediate and long term best interests of all citizens once again.

    #1 PROBLEM – California has far too many undereducated citizens who are unable to take an interest, study the issues, listen and discuss all views and demand that that our politicians meet the needs of We The People as their paramount priority once again.

    #2 PROBLEM – Disengaged university educators who fail to make sure We The People are educated enough to perpetuate democracy of, by and for the people.

    Continuation of an undereducated electorate is a threat to the future for all of us, especially our democracy.

    Time for far more preeminent Berkeley professors and scholars to follow the role model example of Professor Robert Reich and speak out loud and clear via the news media to educate We The People to make the right decisions before the 2012 election.

  12. The problem with the California political system is rooted in the decades long decision to limit the ability of local government to raise property taxes. True that

  13. It is just very disappointing how ever time something has to get cut the state just raids our colleges and education system. The UC system is one of the best in the world, but not for much longer at this rate.

  14. Peep peep, I’m just that chick hatching in the egg, saying, don’t forget the staff: until their attrition is treated properly the rest won’t work, either. Also remember that the less staff, the more reason to hire contractors – the privatization creates a substandard physical (and psychological) infrastructure.
    Thanks, Nancy, for this eloquent (though a tiny bit incomplete) overview.

  15. Indeed, it is time for Berkeley professors and scholars to Fight Back to save Education, Democracy, Freedom of Speech, Civil Rights, ERA, Jobs to End Poverty and Guaranteed Quality of Life for All Future Generations more than ever before in history. Berkeley provided leadership in the 60s and 70s and it is time to make the right things happen again.

    The way our politicians are destroying quality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness today demands that scholars provide a much higher level of education for We The People in such a way as to end polarization, permanent campaign cycle, and special interest power of money that controls our politicians and disenfranchises We The People from control of our government.

    The rise of democracy that ancient Athenians produced is now being threatened by the fall phase of democracy produced by Washington politicians today.

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