Privatization increases inequality and reduces the quality of education

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The rhetoric of access and excellence should not hide the exploding inequality within UC Berkeley and the deterioration of its education, both due to the administration’s model of privatization. Let’s start at the top. The UC Berkeley chancellor receives pay of $532,000 plus extras, behind the pay of four head coaches who earn between $573,ooo and $2.9 million. While administrators receive exorbitant pay, service workers on campus barely receive a living wage of $30,000. At the same time, in-state tuition and fees for students come to $14,000, and, given the cost of living in the Bay Area, many find themselves in poverty. So, with increasing salaries for senior administrators accompanying the extraction of greater revenues from students, it appears the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.

But it’s actually more complicated. State funding, as a proportion of the university budget, has fallen from 50 percent to 13 percent over the last 30 years, and the rise of student tuition is usually seen as a way to make up for the decline in public funding. But this hides the funds contributed to an ever-expanding and overbearing administration. Over the last 20 years, the number of senior administrators has increased five-fold, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). All the while, student enrollment has increased by nearly 20 percent.

Why has the expansion of the administration vastly outpaced the expansion of every other group within the university? The key driver is privatization. While California has its specificity, such as the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes, universities all over the country have moved in this direction. They increasingly emulate private businesses, importing executives with corporate salaries whose task is to subject the university to severe budget constraints. UC Berkeley chancellors have had their pet projects – the renovation of the stadium, the cost-cutting initiative Operational Excellence, the creation of a Berkeley Global Campus. Each one is designed to make money, yet each one plunges us deeper into debt – from tragedy to farce.   

These chancellors hope to make their mark and spiral on, though many spiral down. Without local roots they surround themselves with their own people, also recruited from outside. Former chancellor Nicholas Dirks, for example, coming from Columbia University, brought in Claude Steele as executive vice chancellor and provost from Stanford, and employed outside consultants to brand himself. He built a fence around his home and an escape hatch from his office, shoring up a fortress mentality.

Separating themselves from the campus, such “spiralists” set about appropriating control from the traditional campus rulers – faculty and faculty who become administrators. Gradually this new executive class begins to dictate terms to the practitioners of teaching and research. This can lead to struggles in which the faculty resist or even contribute to ejecting the chancellor and their entourage, as happened to chancellor Dirks. More often, though, faculty have every interest in complying. To maintain their claim to lead a “world-class” university, the new executives have to hold onto their most distinguished faculty and prevent them from being cherry-picked by private universities. To this end, the new corporate regime co-opts the faculty, protecting their salaries and sometimes even reducing their teaching loads However, they simultaneously divide the faculty, as newcomers have poorer pensions, and conditions in the professional schools are very different from the humanities.

The détente is only possible if exploitation is pushed down the ladder and a new class of faculty – contingent professionals – is created to absorb the extra teaching. For every new assistant professor, roughly two lecturers can be appointed for the same price, each of whom teaches twice as much as a tenure-system faculty member. Moreover, they can be hired and fired almost at will as budgetary circumstances demand.

In the country at large, over the last 40 years, the proportion of tenure track to non-tenure track faculty has shifted from 57:43 percent to 34:66 percent. Here at Berkeley we are behind the curve, tenure-track faculty still outnumber lecturers, and conditions for lecturers are superior to most other public universities. Still, they are treated as second class citizens even though they may be outstanding instructors.

The broad national shift has repercussions for a third group – graduate students are recruited in fewer numbers as there are fewer tenure-track positions. They come to realize that they have a two-track future, and so competition for publications intensifies and teaching takes a back seat. The inevitable result: the deterioration of undergraduate education that is so dependent on graduate student face-to-face instruction – fewer courses with teaching assistants, more students in each section. The profligate executive class thus pushes the costs down to the most vulnerable.      

Our new Chancellor is an experienced administrator, recruited from within: a loyalist rather than a spiralist. But what difference does it make? Chancellor Carol Christ is pursuing the same privatization program of her predecessors, albeit with more rationality and prudence. Though she exempts certain academic expenditures from cuts, such as faculty salaries, slashing department budgets inevitably erodes the quality of undergraduate education as does the creation of self-supporting master’s programs that absorb faculty time and resources.   

We are told there is no alternative. But actually there is: the campaign to Reclaim California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, the “$48 fix.” With a tax that would cost families with a median income only $48 a year, the state funding of higher education could be restored to the level of the year 2000. But this would require convincing Californians that we are worth it. Here lies the paradox: the privatization strategy has been a public relations disaster. The news from UC Berkeley is botched handling of sexual harassment cases (to protect the brand), recruiting out-of-state and foreign students instead of California’s own children (to increase revenue); and various forms of petty corruption (in imitation of real executives). The recent audit of the UC Office of the President has been no less damaging to the image of UC.

It is time to turn the tables on the administration, subjecting it to austerity and surveillance. Then, and only then, can we begin to turn the ship around, win back support for the public university as not only promoting access and excellence but also guaranteeing accountability to the communities it serves within and beyond California.

Michael Burawoy is chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association and a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley.