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      Friday
      Oct292010

      The Coming Promise for Students

      In 2008 a social movement propelled Obama to presidency. As happens, the movement faltered in its hour of success. The countermovement became ascendant, right-wing populism plus opposition to reforms of past.

      If countermovement sweeps America, California will be the exception, the alternative. Suddenly, Jerry Brown will be the most interesting national voice among democrats.

      California can be the national engine for conservation and alternative energy, with assistance from Obama administration. California was leader in 70s, saved consumers billions and created hundreds of thousands of green jobs. Fuel efficiency standards adopted by nearly 20 other states. New plan to create 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy and 500,000 green jobs by 2020.

      California also poised to define an alternative to the backlash against immigrants from Mexico and Central America symbolized by Arizona, in part because California already had its “Arizona moment” a decade ago with Pete Wilson and Prop 187.  48 percent of likely voters say immigrants are a benefit to California, only 32 percent say a burden. 59 percent say an immigrant who has lived and worked here for two years should be permitted to stay here if discovered, only 30 percent say should be deported. (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 2010)

      California might also lead the way towards a new Good Neighbor Police toward Latin America as a whole, modeled on FDR’s policies of the Thirties, as an alternative to the embargo of Cuba, the coup in Honduras, the spiral of tensions with Venezuela, and the continued neo-liberal policies like NAFTA which turn those countries into our markets and uproot and drive immigrants here desperately in search of work. 

      Our other major challenge will be to push President Obama to adopt an exit strategy from the unwinnable, unaffordable war in Afghanistan and the secret war in Pakistan, which only lead to a spiral of escalation. Californians will pay $21.6 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq in FY2011, money which could fund 1.5 million full university scholarships and retrofit over 3 million homes with renewable photovoltaic electricity.

      It’s not only that universities could benefit from the diversion of tax dollars from war to peace. Universities like this one should challenge the rigid mentality that sees a clash of civilizations in the world, projects a long war of 80 years against global Muslim extremism, and renders all other priorities secondary. This time reminds me of the Cold War era when intellectual freedom was sacrificed to the two-dimensional categories of Free World versus Communism, when free inquiry was chilled, when critics were spied upon, when this university adopted a loyalty oath and dossiers were compiled on professors by the leaders of the FBI and CIA.

      As history turned out, communism was not monolithic, the Soviets and Chinese were divided, and revolutionary nationalism was perpetually misunderstood and underestimated as a force in the world, from Cuba and Algeria to Vietnam.

      Finally questioning came to the university in the form of the teach-ins, an intellectual way of challenging thinking-as-usual, then in the form of the Free Speech Movement and movements that opened the American mind to wider alternatives and the doors of the university to wider constituencies.

      I believe today that nothing is more important that students, faculty and universities taking up the challenge of critical analysis of the war on terrorism and the alternatives. Speaking to a professor of Islamic studies at UCLA yesterday, I was told that the present discourse still is dominated by the fear mongerers or apologists for the status quo, and that much greater support is needed for an expanding program of research, undergraduate education, and global dialogue with the Muslim world. It was said in my generation that communism was a closed and monolithic system, but a Michael Gorbachev proved the Cold Warriors wrong. Today it is said that Islam is a unique fundamentalism, but I think this generation will prove that view to be too narrow and self-serving.

      So those are some of the challenges I see for today and tomorrow. If Jerry Brown is elected, it will be up to you, the students, to demand to meet with him, to argue with him for a more diverse board of regents and a more progressive budget that lowers the cost of education for all California students.

      It remains to be seen whether higher education will remain diversified, accessible and affordable in California and America, or will continue down a path of privatization, shrinking budgets and closing doors.

      I come from a generation that had a profound hope for the universities and our future: “There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us” (Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley College, 1969). The Port Huron Statement even believed the universities might be a crucial agency of social change.

      It didn’t turn out that way. Certainly there were great and lasting reforms in our universities and in America as a whole wrought by movements like the Free Speech Movement (1964), brilliantly described by Professor Robby Cohen in Freedom’s Orator.

      Unfortunately many of those reforms – like ethnic studies, women’s studies – were achieved largely in the streets against tear gas and police clubs, but they were achieved.

      But the question for today’s students is not whether they can read authors who previously were excluded from the curriculum – Anais Nin, Emiliano Zapata and Carmen Robles, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky – but whether they can afford to.

      The struggles of the previous decades have altered access and opportunity so greatly than an African American can become president of the United States, while economic inequality and stagnation remain constant.

      The fight, which many of you are fighting, for a more affordable university is the opening round in what may become a lifetime fight for a more affordable society.

      In the decade 1998-2009, tuition doubled at UC and CSU and steadily rose at community colleges. Seniors typically graduate – nationally – with debts of $25,000 or more. As costs become greater there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of California students going to college after high school, it now below 50 percent. The overall educational level has dropped, with California now in the bottom half of educational attainment.

      A racial gap continues. According to CPEC data, only 2 percent of the black college-age population and 1.5 percent of Latinos are enrolled at UC, and only 10 percent at community colleges. When you factor in low-income backgrounds, the rates drop by half.

      The Master Plan for Higher Education itself is based on perpetuating the existing stratification of California as whole instead of challenging it.

      1973 Carnegie report: “all civilized countries…depend on a thin, clear stream of excellence to provide new ideas, new technologies and the statesman-like treatment of complex social and political problems.”

      Consider higher education according to a pyramid model, one with three tiers:

      At the top is UC modeling itself on private universities like Harvard and Yale. Your students are sort of the junior class of the best and brightest, coming from the upper 12 and one half percent. You should be the easiest to teach, the most likely to get ahead in life. The state subsidy for each of you is $21,000. Your professors mostly make well over $100,000, your top administrators about $300,000.

      By comparison, the state subsidy for a CSU student is $11,000 and for a community college student $4,800. Professors at those institutions are paid half to 2/3 the pay at UC.

      Don’t be blinded by the idea that you deserve these subsidies because you are the best. Remember than Steven Spielberg came from a CSU. Of course you deserve applause and respect for doing well in school, but notice the built in hierarchy of the pyramid – we are subsidizing a stratification system. Those who need the most attention in terms of educational development inevitably receive the lowest state support and the worst-paid faculty in the classroom. And when they succeed in completing their work to transfer to a four-year university, only 23-30 percent actually make, because their credits are rejected or there’s no space in the pipeline.

      The stratification model is reflected in the unseemly disparity in administrative salaries among the segments, based on a corporate model of the university. When the new UC president was chosen, his compensation package of $800,000 was double that of his UC predecessor. And during a recent ten-year period, the UC central bureaucracy for ten campuses rose by 25 percent while the CCC bureaucracy for over 100 campuses was cut by 25 percent.

      All this is what your rising tuitions buy, not to mention massive freshman lecture courses and countless teaching assistants many of whom need teaching assistance themselves. With some exceptions, the top professors describe teaching as a “load” (as in “my teaching load”) but research and fund-raising as “opportunities.”

      If this is what privilege brings, imagine the stress and limits faced by the rest of your generation trying to make it as best they can.

      The UC according to the state constitution is considered a “public trust”, not a conveyor belt to success for the few. It is to be “entirely independent of all political and sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and the administration of its affairs.”

      The university continually cites this language to shield itself from any public or legislative scrutiny regulation of any sort. This concept of a self-guided, self-perpetuating bureaucracy is perhaps the leading reason that the Regents tend to become servants of the administration rather than watchdogs over a public trust, and why the single student regent so often votes in disagreement with the vast majority of the board when it comes to student concerns like tuition. I would guess that a majority of the regents, Democrats or Republicans, have background in business, real estate, banking and investment capital, roles consistent with the further privatization of the university, not with the doctrine of a public trust.

      Now with a new leadership elected in California, a new opportunity for student activism may be rising.

      You should ask the Governor and Lt Governor how they interpret the doctrine of “public trust” when it comes to the University. Is there a reason, for example, that the official mission of “public service” and undergraduate instruction always receive so much less support than the mission of academic research far from the classroom. Should there be more than one student regent on a board of 26? Should there be an inspector general to conduct independent audits of the university instead of allowing the university to audit itself? Should the governor and the legislature be indifferent to the slow crawl of the admissions process which, at this rate, may take another 50 years [at least] to reach equitable numbers of blacks and Latinos? Does the lure of Pentagon research contracts inhibit the exploration of alternatives?

      All these issues are connected. We are fighting a Long War partly over oil and natural gas and pipeline rights in order to feed a gas-guzzling consumer culture promoted by a self-interested corporate class, which plainly has too much power over the funding of our political campaigns and our institutions as a whole, including the universities.

      On the other hand there is a rising constituency, particularly of young people, who feel the need for a very different future than simply a Xerox of the present. It has been so for a very long time. It was students who pushed JFK into the Peace Corps as an alternative to the military draft. It was students who ended the segregation of our southern schools, who led the Free Speech Movement, who took up the cause of women’s studies, environmental studies, Black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ studies. Perhaps you can only do so much, because you are passing through. But you have left your mark again and again, all the way to the grass roots Obama campaign of 2008.

      Some say we have an apathetic, even lost, younger generation. But I don’t believe anyone really wants to be apathetic when we only have one life to live. I don’t think there is a crisis of youth. I think there is a crisis of the elders, a failure to think anew and create space and resources for the human progression from one generation to the next.

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