Next chancellor must rebuild trust

In the past few weeks, much has been said about the scandals, follies and errors that led to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ resignation. Dirks was less the victim of inexperience and incompetence than that of adherence to the failed policies of his predecessors. Capitulation to “the new normal” of reduced state funding and the enthusiastic embrace of privatization has been the common sense of Berkeley’s leadership for over a decade. While electorates around the world have revolted against those policies and scholars across the spectrum have challenged their fiscal logic, Dirks steadfastly championed them, even touting them as a “new” model for preserving the public good. In fact, these are precisely the policies that, before Dirks ever took office, produced Berkeley’s structural deficit. Now, many of Dirks’ keenest faculty and administrative critics want to accelerate those failed policies.

So before we begin the search for a new chancellor, let us remember that the policies, not the personnel, are the main problem. We need a chancellor who will not be engaged in the doublespeak of proclaiming UC Berkeley’s preeminence as a public university while simultaneously insisting on marketizing every aspect of its existence. We need a chancellor who does not believe that the negative impact on educational access and the quality of our student body caused by tuition hikes and more nonresident students can be offset by scholarship programs and student loans. We need a chancellor who does not proclaim that, as the flagship campus, UC Berkeley needs greater independence from the UC system while at the same time depending on the UC Office of the President to refinance $2 billion of capital loans for signature projects on the campus. We need a chancellor who does not think we can fundraise and borrow our way out of state spending cuts, but who wishes to be a leader in making a case for renewed public investment in Berkeley’s excellence.

Like his predecessors, Dirks insisted state funding cuts and the distribution of resources within the UC system meant that there was no alternative to austerity and privatization. Back in November 2013 — six months after Dirks’ appointment as chancellor — Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Wilton was predicting a structural annual deficit of $150-200 million. Wilton advised Dirks just what he had advised the previous chancellor — the only path ahead for UC Berkeley was tuition hikes, aggressive fundraising and staffing cuts to reduce the costs of employee healthcare and pensions. This is precisely the path that led to a frenzy of debt-fuelled construction, the disaster of Campus Shared Services, the laying off of staff and outsourcing of services, a shrinking permanent faculty and a growing pool of poorly paid lecturers to help teach an expanding student body, and, ironically, the worst structural deficit of any UC campus.

The crunch came in May 2015, when the budget deal between Janet Napolitano and Jerry Brown choked off the prospect of further tuition hikes. This year’s budget deal only worsened the situation by placing limits on the enrollment of nonresident students. Without those sources of projected revenue, even a talented fundraiser like Dirks and a determined budget-cutter like John Wilton were lost. Wilton announcing his resignation in January and Dirks followed seven months later, with the campus exactly where they found it — an annual deficit of $150 million despite having raised a record amount of private donations.   

Let’s leave aside the fact that those committed to austerity, privatization and even potential secession from the university really have no plan. There is an alternative, however, that has far more support among the public than the elites would have us believe, as the past year has shown. The alternative is to recommit UC Berkeley to the fundamental principles of a public university and to ask Californians to fund it as a public resource as part of the broader ecology of public higher education in the state. Only the state can deliver the scale of investment and funding necessary to renew and extend UC Berkeley’s comprehensive excellence.

This alternative will require rebuilding trust among public spirited Californians. They are rightly disillusioned by the claim that UC Berkeley remains a public university when its chancellor is paid over $500,000 a year, when wealthy nonresident students keep talented Californians from attending, when the faculty and student populations do not reflect the diversity of the state, when lower-income families face proportionately higher levels of debt than the affluent and when an underfunded Title IX office cannot keep the students here safe from sexual harassment. In short, our campus presently feels out of reach to and unrepresentative of ordinary Californians.

How do we rebuild this trust? The next chancellor should be appointed with a salary appropriate for a servant of the public and receive no more than 10 times that of the lowest-paid university employee. That chancellor should place a moratorium on constructing new buildings and athletic facilities because it is immoral to add capital projects when debt service currently accounts for two-thirds of the annual $150 million deficit. That Chancellor should recommit to making UC Berkeley’s teaching and research mission its guiding priorities while ensuring that all Californians can benefit from them. And that chancellor should be dedicated to keeping Berkeley in the UC system while insisting on new levels of budget transparency at UC Berkeley and the UCOP.  

Only then will it be possible to ask the median California income earner to pay the additional $31 in annual state taxes necessary to reset the budget of public higher education to its 2000 levels — in 2000, UC tuition was about $4000 annually and CSU tuition was about $1400 annually. This budget would eliminate deficits, enable reinvestment in crumbling and overcrowded classrooms and research facilities, and lower tuition costs by over 50% at UC campuses, California State Universities and California community colleges so that we can bring the story of mountainous student debt to an end.

Now that’s a UC Berkeley we could all believe in and fight for. We need a new chancellor with the courage, vision and political skills to lead that fight.

Read more opinion coverage on Dirks’ resignation here.

Wendy Brown, Michael Burawoy, Celeste Langan, Colleen Lye, James Vernon and Dick Walker are current and former chairs of the Berkeley Faculty Association.

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