Rebuilding Higher Education after Earthquake Arnold: Kamenetz, Yudof, and other Concern Trolls

by zunguzungu

I don’t regard Anya Kamenetz’s book as particularly credible — you can read a nice take-down here* — and since it’s raining and I can‘t go sit by the lake and read my shiny new hardback copy of Empires in World History, let us turn instead to Mark Yudof, the guy who is in the position of actually implementing the sort of technocratic neoliberalism she only hyperbolizes.

But first, some contextualizing numbers. This is a graph showing what has happened in the last ten years to the amount of money the UC system receives from the state of California, the revenue stream on which the entire edifice is built:

If that spaghetti-monster doesn’t immediately make everything clear to you, the upshot is this:

  • The light blue line at the top, the benchmark, represents what the funding situation would be if the amount of revenue the UC received remained the same steady proportion of the total state general fund since 2001-2. No increases, no decreases; as the state’s general fund rises and falls, the benchmark measures a constant percentage of the total.
  • The very lowest number, the gray line representing “extreme Arnold,” the last budget is where we actually are. Note that it is substantially below the benchmark number; public higher ed in California is receiving a substantially lower percentage of the state’s general fund than it used to.
  • All the other lines represent various budget projections which have been proposed and implemented in the meantime — plans for returning the UC and CSU to solvency — and which were then abandoned, leaving us where we are now, in the worst of all possible worlds scenario.

Now Chris Newfield, whose graph it is, admits that the numbers aren’t perfect; there should be a bit of a dip in 2009 to represent the Great Recession. But that actually demonstrates the falsity of one of the great myths of the UC crisis, showing quite clearly that even before you factor in the 2009 financial crisis, the UC’s funding was already deep in the toilet. The revenue stream on which public higher education in California is based had already been chipped away, bit by bit, for the good part of a decade.

To pick just the most flagrant example, the red line represents the budget numbers for the “Compact for Higher Education” agreement, an agreement cut between the University and the State of California to stabilize what had already become, in 2004, a real crisis of funding. You can read it here, but the upshot is this: the state and the UC made an agreement on how to manage the situation, in which, basically, the UC and CSU systems accepted some budget cuts and committed to raising money from “other revenue sources” (i.e. student fees and wealthy donors), in exchange for some promises on the part of the state government that they would moderate the extent to which they were cutting the university budgets. And this was a real and substantive compromise on the part of the universities, by the way; while the blueprint for public higher ed in California has always been the idea that the state was on the hook for “core educational functions” (things like “instruction”), the UC/CSU side of the compact included accepting that the Universities would take responsibility for a portion of those core functions, to raise some of the money itself that the state was choosing to withhold. It was, in other words, a compromise on a basic principle in exchange for some short-term promises. And then, having gotten the UC and CSU to accept a broad retreat on this basic principle, Schwarzenegger broke the compact and cut the budget to the boneanyway  (to such an extent that even the UC president, who was appointed by regents appointed by Schwarzenegger has called state government an “unreliable partner”). In effect, the Universities gave up a great deal and got nothing.

Which brings us Mark Yudof. Now, you wouldn’t want to be him; he is the figurehead for a university system which is being systematically starved to death by his own boss. He’s the most visible lobbyist for and representative of the many students and employees of the University, but as he negotiates with the guy who appointed the people who appointed him, he has virtually no cards to play. He can only take what they give him and hope they don’t take it all back away the moment it suits them to do so.

But, that said, this is how Mark Yudof framed the problems facing public Higher Ed in 2002, long before he was actually the guy holding the bag when California reneged on its commitments:

“As higher education comprises a smaller and smaller portion of state budgets, and as state dollars make up a narrowing slice of university budgets, the central implication is that, for the foreseeable future, public research universities will look to students to pay more of their educational costs. These students will be part of what I have dubbed the hybrid university, an institution with many traditions and functions still within the public realm, but with other characteristics that are more in line with those of private colleges and universities. The challenge for these hybrid institutions will be to retain the best of their public traditions while adapting to a more privatized model.

Essentially, his position in 2002 — long before he was appointed czar of the UC — was that public education was already a dinosaur. In 2002, he had already accepted the reality of permanent budget cuts, and had proposed, therefore, what he called the “hybrid university,” an institution which would essentially take subsidies from the state, but would, in sharp variance with the traditional model for public higher education, try to raise as much funding as it could from its students to make up the difference. Sound familiar? It would, in effect, behave more like a corporation — treating its students more like customers and less like investments for the state itself — but since it was happy to take whatever remnants of state funding were left, it would be a tax-payer subsidized private university, one which would not, in return, keep its fees low enough for middle class people to attend without substantial debt.

In other words, there is good reason to suspect that Yudof is not very committed to public education as such, or, to put this another way, there is good reason to think that he was appointed (in 2008) by the people Schwarzenegger appointed because they all knew he was the sort of person who would effectively privatize the university when the governor cut its public funding, all with a minimum of fuss and hassle. They knew that, also, because he’d already done the same thing at the University of Texas. And they’ve been right, too.

For example, he’s even said on several occasions — here for example, and here — variations on the idea that

“sometimes a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

And I thought of that when I saw this comment exchange on Anya Kamenetz’s blog, on a post about how the UC is striding forth into the new millennium by expanding online coursework.

Commenter Bryce: …My hope is that, because California schools are facing a real budget crisis, and because institutions are facing a genuine crisis of legitimacy, that real reform is possible. My fear is that they’ll let this crisis go to waste.

Kamenetz: Hi Bryce, All good points. Better to have the UC doing it themselves than have Kaplan U providing the online courses though, right?

Rest easy, commenter Bryce! (edit: Bryce responds) They have not, in fact, let the crisis go to waste. Because, to go back to where I started, an unbiased look at the funding cuts of the last ten years demonstrate pretty clearly that the writing was on the wall for the UC long before the 2009 financial crisis; facedwith a republican governor hostile to the idea of public education, a set of governor-appointed regents appointing a president amenable to effective privatization, and a state legislature perfectly willing to pass along the governor’s massive cuts to the UC and CSU systems (not to mention the community colleges, which get screwed most of all, and what’s left of the state’s support for public K-12), public education in the state of California was basically insolvent already. But when the downturn came — as it always does — it provided the perfect excuse to deliver the coup de grace, to bring the self-fulfilling prophecy of the failure of public education to its conclusion and pretend like it was inevitable. But as we in California know, when an earthquake knocks a building down, it’s because it wasn’t built right in the first place.

Which is why it’s worth returning to and re-emphasizing how absurdly bad-faithed the language of “wasting a crisis” really is. The people who want to make hay on skyrocketing student fees — and the spiraling student debt that follows as smoke to fire — are people who were so fundamentally and ideologically antipathetic to public education in the first place that their rosy-colored visions of a techno-tastic future seem to me like the very worst kind of concern trolling. And while people like Kamenetz  — blessed with Ivy league educations, by the way — talk about how the earthquake that’s shaken California public education to the ground is an opportunity, we need to be paying close attention as political hacks like Yudof take charge of that opportunity to fundamentally re-shape, re-structure, and (by the way) privatize it out of existence.

* I’m fascinated by the different reaction Kamenetz had to that review than, for example, Reihan Salam’s full-throated repudiation of “Dean Dead”: to her profound credit, Kamenetz wrote that he “makes some great points” (a very open-minded thing to say about a review that pretty thoroughly took her to task), while Salam’s scorched earth response, well, can one really adopt the rhetoric of “Dean Dad is wrong because he personalizes his disagreement, and let me prove that he’s wrong by personalizing the argument”? Apparently one can. It makes me tend to want to extend as much as possible the assumption that she’s operating in good faith, whether or not I’m able to find any value in her back (I tend to not be able to).