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Millions for security, cuts to critical theory program underscore need for transparency

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OCTOBER 03, 2017

Our first effort to say something about the massive cuts to UC Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory (CT) this past year, which eliminated over half its annual operating budget, was built around a simple premise: that these cuts represent the latest episode of long-running trends undermining the public character of this campus and that they ought to be openly discussed as such. By what rationale does a program like CT appear not as an integral part of the university’s core mission, but as a luxury item to be discarded in hard times?

Of course, this question haunts many actual and potential targets in the university’s long march toward austerity, from language programs to thriving undergraduate mentoring initiatives. But it presents a special puzzle here. After all, CT runs the largest Designated Emphasis program for doctoral candidates on campus; continues to invite renowned speakers from across the globe (2017’s roster alone includes Rainer Forst, Mahmood Mamdani, Marta Segarra and Michael Hardt); and organizes events and working groups that bring students, faculty and community members together to reflect on topics of common concern. This year in particular marked an extraordinary development in CT’s history, as it became the hub of an International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, expanding its scope beyond campus borders to connect scholars and institutions around the world, especially in parts of the Global South.

So why cut CT now? The usual criteria fail us here, since it is difficult to see how an “evidence-based” or “performance-based” evaluation could have yielded such a damning sentence. Nor does the vague rhetoric of tight budgets offered by the dean of social sciences (who cut all respective funding to CT) and the dean of arts and humanities adequately explain the reasoning behind these decisions. For if it were simply a matter of uniformly trimming fat from the body, then how did it become necessary for Dean Carla Hesse and the social sciences division to slash CT while other ventures such as the Matrix — whose private offices and conference rooms (formerly student spaces) sit empty most days save for an abundant staff — remain shielded from internal criticism or external scrutiny by the dean’s unilateral will?

These were the questions that we originally wanted to pose and perhaps begin to answer. But as soon as we started looking for some basic figures to inform our thinking, we found ourselves facing a more urgent and troubling problem. We made an inquiry to the budget specialist of the social sciences division asking for a broad picture of the budget but received no response. Instead, we found our motives questioned by the dean herself, presumably because our inquiry had been perceived as a threat or as inappropriate. It seems that the dean’s office saw us not as concerned students hoping to understand the budgetary constraints and priorities that shape our everyday academic experience but rather as suspicious intruders eager to tarnish the division’s image. Leaving such strange suspicion aside, our concern is this: If an email inquiry to the staff of our own division is a dead end for accessing basic figures, then how is anyone supposed to make sense of how and why the decisions that determine such things as class size, faculty hires, and the very existence of interdisciplinary centers and programs are made?

Of course, non-transparency about the budget is almost traditional at UC Berkeley. Thus, in an interview with The Daily Californian, Chief Financial Officer Rosemarie Rae attempted to distinguish the new administration by proclaiming its “open and transparent” approach to campus finance. But our (non-)encounter with the social sciences division suggests to us that nothing has changed.

It is not just that efforts toward transparency have been insufficient. We want to suggest that the opacity of administrators’ budgets is not the result of accident or ill will but rather an effective and strategically necessary aspect of their approach to budget austerity. In line with Chancellor Carol Christ’s goal to balance the books by 2020, administrators will double down on what they call “expense reduction” and “revenue generation” with renewed vigor. But what may sound like neutral tools aimed at fiscal responsibility are really means to achieve a double effect familiar to anyone within the world of higher education today: the anointing of private philanthropy as the primary mode of funding for academic endeavors; and the elimination of departments and programs unable or unwilling to refashion themselves to attract private philanthropic and corporate funds.

And here is where the opacity becomes key. For as long as no one can know how budget decisions are made, deans can continue to present themselves as doing the responsible work of disinterested officials, even as they transform the campus in a manner that its critics decry as the death of the humanities and the rise of a hegemony of digital, data-driven science. (Ironic that the latter is said to be the only kind of research worthy of the name, while such basic data as budgetary figures are hidden away.) What seem like responsible acts in light of the austerity requirements invariably become judgments on which forms of knowledge are valuable.

But with no specific numbers or stated priorities to engage, such criticism will remain mere speculation and fist-waving. So we find ourselves with no way to make a concrete charge against a painfully classic case: an interdisciplinary program in the humanities and social sciences endangered by the acts of deans who have trumpeted an exorbitantly expensive “lean” start-up incubator, despite the fact that the former recently received international recognition while the latter continues to leak funding.

We worry that all this is at risk of being left in the shadows in these tumultuous times. Chancellor Christ has proclaimed this a “free speech year,” declaring that free speech is “our legacy” and “who we are.” This is how she justifies spending millions of dollars on security for Ben Shapiro, 20 minutes of Milo Yiannopoulos, and the non-appearances of Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon while acknowledging the obvious: “certainly there are other needed uses for this money.” For it is our duty and power, Christ suggests, to “shape this narrative” that defines us.

Why is it that we are asked to share the burden of shaping our legacy as the defenders of free speech but are powerless even to know the facts and reasoning that shape the academic budget and their effects on this campus? What kind of power do we really have to define ourselves if we can’t find a pie chart, let alone the numbers, showing how our divisions spend their budgets and cut our programs?

If left unchallenged, the ongoing transformation of how knowledge is valued on this campus will mean the death of a diversely rich campus by a thousand budget cuts. What will our identity as the home of free speech mean when the foundations of intelligent debate — the public university’s centers of research and teaching — crumble beneath our feet? What value will unfettered speech have when we have lost our languages, literatures and histories, and when the informed practice of critique has long been left behind? What sort of identity and legacy would we be defending then?

William Callison and Jaeyoon Park are political science doctoral students at UC Berkeley.

OCTOBER 02, 2017

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