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The UC can set agenda for state change

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OCTOBER 21, 2011

Like any others on Berkeley’s campus who have registered with “UC for California,” the systemwide advocacy platform, I received an email on Sept. 28 from UC President, Mark Yudof. The message, one of very few that I’ve ever received from UC for California, asked that I pass on a link for registration with the campaign to family and friends.

UC for California’s approach to advocacy is to lobby California legislators through letters and visits. Its efforts, however idealistic they might be, are almost deliberately amateurish and ineffective. It should be clear by now that whatever the faults with hiring practices and a top-heavy, overpaid and underperforming bureaucracy, the real and very dangerous threat to the University of California stems from our state’s inability to be governed. For therein lies its unwillingness and inability to fund our home — our university — resulting in a state of affairs which spells the end of the UC as a public institution.

If you add California’s structural political problems to a Republican Party dominated by a group of people who have transformed the question of revenue from an instrument in a political toolkit into a political end in itself, what you have is a situation in which the type of lobbying UC for California advocates is predestined to fail abjectly (something they were warned about from the beginning).

What California needs, and what might just save the UC system, which is being eroded before our eyes, is a structural overhaul of our state’s system of governance.  Mark Paul and Joe Matthews present a set of concrete solutions in their book, “California Crackup” and R. Jeffrey Lustig promotes a similar vision, suggesting that a constitutional convention might be the way to realise it, in “Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good.”

Ideas about making California’s politics more democratic (we are blighted twice over by minority rule — fewer than 30 percent of eligible voters turned out for critical 2009 budget initiatives, and between 34 and 38 percent of our legislators wield veto power over our revenue) and our polity more governable (elections that would encourage more parties and ensure that right-leaning voters in Alameda County and left-leaning ones in Shasta County are represented) are not in short supply. What their realization requires is a substantial and sustained mobilisation of our state for a reform agenda.

Just as reform could save the UC system, the UC itself could help to push for that reform. We are surely the state’s brainiest constituency, and were once one of its most vocal. We are also constituents of one of its most idealistic and successful institutions.  These factors mean that we should be center-stage in any debate about the fundamentals of California’s society in a way in which we have, to this point, not been. The “Campus Forum on the Future of the Public University” series is one method of at least broaching some of the important issues on campus, but it’s not clear that there is a concrete path worked out for turning the conversation (which should have begun about ten years ago) into a concrete contribution at the state-wide level.

UC leadership, UC for California as an advocacy model and going cap-in-hand to Sacramento have failed. That leadership could begin to redeem itself by re-orienting UC for California towards a state-wide reform agenda and by mobilising university students, faculty and staff. But it will not do so without pressure from students, faculty and staff who, themselves, need to express themselves more critically, forcefully and readily on this subject of universal importance: the future of our state and of our university.

Let’s call time on amateur hour, and get serious about identifying the source of our troubles and the means to resolve them. Let’s be an example to the rest of our state, remind it why the UC is worth it for all of us and talk in specific terms about how we can save it. Let’s set the agenda for a change.


Jeff Schauer is a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Berkeley.

OCTOBER 20, 2011