By Judith Butler
(originally published in The Guardian Oct. 4, 2009)
The promise of affordable higher education is dying. The University of California’s students and faculty demand answers.
It may seem that the thousands of people on September 24th who converged on the University of California at Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza, home of the free speech movement, were simply upset about money. Where has all the money gone? Who has taken it away? And perhaps there is no one to blame. The University of California finds itself with a shortfall of $1.15 billion for the next two years, the result of an $813 million cut in state funding and another $225 million increase in costs for student enrollment. Everyone knows that the state government is dysfunctional, that public funding decreased by 40% between 1990-2005, and this year alone brought another 20% reduction, accelerating the abandonment of the premiere public university by a California state government fully paralyzed by minority rule (two-thirds of the legislature is required for sealing any budgetary deal) and Proposition 13 (the 1978 ban on increasing property taxes that strangleholds any attempt to increase revenues for public services). It would seem like the UC is in the same situation as other public services and institutions: lay-offs, cutbacks, decreased services and the prospect of a seriously compromised education for undergraduates and graduates alike. So what’s the problem?
Mid-summer when no one was around, UC president Mark Yudof invoked “emergency powers” to implement furloughs on staff and faculty, and sent word to campuses that drastic cuts had to be made in operating expenses. Claiming that the UC system has no unallocated or unreserved funds from which to draw in such dire moments, Yudof proceeded after brief consultation with other administrators within the system, to devise a plan, which includes a graduated salary reduction program for all staff and faculty who make more than $40,000 a year. One might have expected faculty and staff to understand the dire circumstances that led to these lamentable cuts. But it became clear that certain cuts actually devastated some programs, while others absorbed the setback with ready reserves. Any set of cuts to basic funding involve decisions about how to allocate the funds that remain, how to set priorities, including decisions about whose livelihood will be maintained, and whose will not. The administration did not wait to reach a settlement with unions; the faculty briefly canvassed were certainly not party to the decision. As a result, the bad news that deans handed down at the beginning of the semester eliminated 2,000 positions, gutted programs that trained high school teachers in science education, closed courses in East Asian languages and advanced Arabic, overburdened classrooms, shut students out of their majors, let scores of lecturers go, and closed the university library on Saturday. In addition, the administration then demanded of students tuition and fee increases of nearly 40%, imperiling the very notion of an affordable public university, forcing many students to leave the university or scramble for full-time jobs.
UC president Yudof tried to explain himself by speaking on Youtube. But this began a series of public blunders that have only helped to solidify a sense of incredulity and outrage on the part of faculty, staff, students, and the wider public: the result is a profound and growing skepticism about Yudof’s ability to advocate for the future of the public university. One does not have to be a brilliant logician to understand the folly of his logic: (a) there are no reserves of money from which we can draw at the present time and (b) our reserves are down by two-thirds. Those of us who were trying to develop a balanced critique of both the paralysis of the state economy and the questionable governance by University of California administrators were suddenly rocked into enraged incredulity when Yudof inexplicably gave an interview to The New York Times Magazine (9/27/09) in which he bragged about his own $800,000 salary, shamelessly displayed his anti-intellectualism, described his entry into the field of education as “an accident” and then complained that he tries to speak to faculty and staff about the budget, but it is “speaking to the dead.”
Suddenly, the problem was not only fiscal – “we don’t have the money” – but a more profound loss of confidence in the mode of governance and the figure of authority entrusted with making the case for public education to the state and federal government during these hard times. Faculty, staff, and students are collectively outraged that the University has failed to make public and transparent what the cuts have been and will be, and by what criteria and set of priorities such cuts are made. Rage also centers on the devastation of “shared governance” – the policy that faculty must be part of any decision-making that affects the academic programs and direction of the university. In its place, a “commission” was appointed by the administration with paltry representation by faculty, emphatically missing are those in the arts and humanities.
No answers are forthcoming to a set of burning questions: Why in this age of slash and burn has the administration of the University of California has bloated by 283 percent, as their own public financial reports make plain? And why does the University of California spend 10 million a year on inter-collegiate athletics and over 123 million on a new athletic center? During a time of corrosive neo-liberalism and rising doubts about education and the arts as public goods and worthy of state support, the administration ducks and hides when it is not boasting about its own stupidity, fails to take up the task of making its decision making process transparent, refuses to honor the mandate to bring in the faculty to share in establishing priorities, and weakens the safeguards against a rampant privatization of this public good that would undercut the university’s core commitment to offer an education both excellent and affordable.
So many skeptics murmured that the call for a Walk Out and Teach In on September 24th would come to nothing. So when over five thousand students, staff, and faculty crowded the open common of Berkeley alone (and several thousand more on the other 10 campuses), every major national and international media outlet took stock. The vocal and theatrical demands of the demonstration were not, as Governor Schwarzenegger quipped, just noise coming from “another screaming interest group.” On the contrary, a rare solidarity among unions, students, and faculty sought to “save the university” and their cry clearly struck a chord across a broad political spectrum. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, joined other faculty for a pointed speak out the night before. Faculty and students clustered into an array of groups, pursuing strategies from mainstream lobbying to anarchist display. The administration was clearly shaken, and subtle hints of division among administrators could be detected. Some congratulated the demonstrators, and others hissed.
My wager is that the walls of the university will shake again – and again – until the message is received: this fiscal crisis is also a crisis in governance: the administration needs to make their books transparent, re-engage shared governance, and set their priorities right so that the United States might continue to claim a public institution of higher learning where a student does not require loads of money to receive a superlative education – after all, this is the promise that we see dying at this moment, and the very thought apparently sends us into the streets en masse.
Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.