UC Berkeley transitions from spiralist to loyalist

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Upon the announcement of Carol Christ’s appointment as chancellor, a Berkeley alumna wrote: “I took courses in medieval literature from her in ancient times – 1970 and 1971. She was a newly-minted professor in English at the time. I remember being impressed by her energy. On the first day of class she wrote her name on the board and told us that it was pronounced ‘Krist’ and we didn’t have to consider her to be God-like.” More world-weary than UC Berkeley undergraduates, faculty are not likely to imagine our new chancellor as a deus ex machina. But can her energy and commitment to UC Berkeley move us in the right direction?

Last year, on May 3, in the last of a series of tumultuous senate meetings, Carol Christ gave us hope. Accepting the position of interim executive vice chancellor and provost, she began: “Like you, I love Berkeley. It has formed my ideas about higher education, and it has formed my ideals about higher education.” She remarked that the university faced an unprecedented double crisis: its budget and its governance. It was only a three-minute speech, but it ended with resounding applause and an audible sigh of relief – a sense that we now had an EVCP who understood what the position entailed, who not only cared about UC Berkeley but knew UC Berkeley intimately; so refreshing after a year of sexual harassment and cover-ups, bungled attempts at campus realignment, hiring of branding consultants, athletics scandal and more. Her openness seemed to be the very opposite of former chancellor Dirks’ fortress mentality, fencing his home and building an escape hatch. It had been the regime of spiralists: administrators who spiral in from outside, develop some signature project that allows them to spiral on, leaving the university to spiral down. Former chancellor Dirks’ signature project was the Berkeley Global Campus that, fortunately, was nipped in the bud by his resignation.

We now have a “loyalist” in charge. She’s already made a difference. She has been open to discussion and her multiple addresses are substantive and brief, always followed by respectful responses to questions. But of course, she inherits a whopping structural deficit and has been required by UCOP to halve it in the next year. In telling units to cut their budgets by a negotiable 6 percent, she exempted teaching and research. Still, many departments, especially smaller ones, are hemorrhaging. Programs that contribute to the vitality and breadth of undergraduate teaching are threatened with elimination, while IA lavishes $2 million salaries on current and former coaches.

Christ’s plan anticipates minimizing cuts by increasing revenues, including university extension and summer session, self-supporting master’s programs and the monetizing of real estate and philanthropy. This is the same strategy that has been pursued for the last 20 years, but perhaps with a difference. She does not appear to be intent on developing pet projects — Operation Excellence, stadium “retrofit” — that promise future dividends but leave the campus reeling in debt. The imagined future never arrives. So the danger of privatization is that it costs more than the revenue it produces, and, simultaneously, erodes the quality of education and research.

The privatization chickens have come home to roost in another way — the recruitment of outsiders who cut costs by expropriating control, all the while inflating the administrative-managerial apparatus. The number of senior managers has increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the stagnant number of tenure-track faculty, while student enrollment has increased by 20 percent. The recent report of Senate Committee on Academic Planning and Resource Allocation, or CAPRA, complains about the lack of accountability in the management of our campus and the continuing secrecy around the budget. They ask: how is it that between 2010 and 2015, the wage bill of the central administration increased by 38 percent, compared to a 13 percent increase for academic units? While austerity is applied to departments, the campus administration escapes oversight.

Is there an alternative to privatization? We believe there is, as we state in our principles and the $48 fix. But all of us can agree that the long-run survival of UC Berkeley as an outstanding public university will require reversing its wounded reputation. The continuing flow of scandals hasn’t helped, especially those emanating from UC Office of the President. We have to help ourselves, redefining the very meaning of the public university as one that is not only accessible but also accountable to wider publics. The university has become a political target, so it can no longer cower behind its flimsy autonomy; it has to project a vision for society as well as for itself. We need the chancellor to be more than a loyalist who focuses only on bringing order to internal matters; we need her to articulate the idea and ideal of higher education as a public good. To accomplish all this, Christ will, indeed, have to be our savior.

Michael Burawoy and Celeste Langan are the co-chairs of the Berkeley Faculty Association.