It may seem that the thousands of people who converged on the University of California Berkeley's famous Sproul Plaza, home of the free speech movement, on 24 September 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 $1.15bn for the next two years, the result of an $813m cut in state funding and another $225m increase in costs for student enrolment. Everyone knows that the state government is dysfunctional, that public funding decreased by 40% between 1990 and 2005 and that this year alone brought another 20% reduction, accelerating the abandonment of the premiere public university by a California legislature fully paralysed by minority rule (a two-thirds majority 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 UC faces the same situation as other public services and institutions: layoffs, 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 funds from which to draw in such dire moments, Yudof devised a plan, which includes a graduated salary reduction programme 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 programmes, while others absorbed the setback with ready reserves. The administration did not wait to reach a settlement with the 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 programmes that train 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 demanded of students tuition and fee increases of nearly 40%, imperilling the very notion of an affordable public university and forcing many students to leave the university or scramble for full-time jobs.
Yudof's attempts to explain himself have only helped solidify a sense of outrage on the part of faculty, staff, students and the wider public. The result is a profound and growing scepticism about Yudof's ability to advocate for the future of the public university.
Those of us who were trying to develop a balanced critique of both the paralysis of the state economy and the questionable governance by UC administrators were incredulous when Yudof gave an interview to the New York Times Magazine 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 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 centres on the devastation of "shared governance" – the policy that faculty must be part of any decision-making that affects the academic programmes 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 UC administration bloated by 283%, as their own public financial reports make plain? And why does the university spend $10m a year on inter-collegiate athletics and over $123m on a new athletic centre?
During a time of corrosive neo-liberalism and rising doubts about education and the arts as public goods worthy of state support, the administration ducks and hides – when it is not boasting about its own stupidity, failing to take up the task of making its decision-making process transparent, refusing to honour the mandate to bring in the faculty to share in establishing priorities and weakening the safeguards against a rampant privatisation of this public good that will undercut the university's core commitment to offer an education both excellent and affordable.
Many sceptics murmured that the call for a walk out and teach in on 24 September would come to nothing. So when over 5,000 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 demonstrators were not, as governor Arnold 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 US secretary of labour, 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 US can continue to claim a public institution of higher learning where a student does not require loads of money to receive a superlative education.
This is the promise that we see dying at this moment, and the very thought sends us into the streets en masse.