More notes from the California higher education battlefield

Tonight was the big Cal teach-in before tomorrow’s day of walkout/protest/demonstration scheduled for all University of California campuses….Back in the day, a teach-in was teaching: faculty who knew something about an issue tried to explain it, sometimes just propagandizing but preferably illuminating complications and subtleties of the state of affairs (Vietnam War, racial injustice, etc.) triggering the state of protest. Tonight, not so much; the six speakers were earnest and lively, but the critical thinking of which we’re supposed to be a veritable factory had mostly left the building.

Warning: this post contains curmudgeonly, possibly mean-spirited, grousing about good people with their hearts in the right place not being their best selves. Your mileage may vary.

Tonight was the big Cal teach-in before tomorrow’s day of walkout/protest/demonstration scheduled for all University of California campuses.  Again the room, this time our largest lecture hall (seating almost 1000), wasn’t big enough, with hundreds of students refused admission (fire codes).  We have a 6000 seat outdoor theater and it was a lovely evening; it’s enough to make one suspect that dark forces in the administration are trying to cut the legs off protest by not allowing it in appropriate venues. I do know that the campus police were reported out and about taking down posters for tomorrow’s walkout.

Back in the day, a teach-in was teaching: faculty who knew something about an issue tried to explain it, sometimes just propagandizing but preferably illuminating complications and subtleties of the state of affairs (Vietnam War, racial injustice, etc.) triggering the state of protest. Tonight, not so much; the six speakers were earnest and lively, but the critical thinking of which we’re supposed to be a veritable factory had mostly left the building. It was a rally (not that there’s anything wrong with that per se): unbalanced, emotional, and selective; exciting and motivating but as teaching, or even pointing to useful actions one could take to be useful, pretty thin gruel.

Privatization, a sort of vaguely defined dark misty presence for the evening, was conjured up again and again to swoop overhead and frighten us. Solidarity was invoked and cheered without much clarity about who is allying with whom on what issue with what concrete goals, long-term or interim. The students were implored usefully by one speaker to talk to those who want to cut funding for California public goods and services and not to shout at them, but got precious little usable advice otherwise, nor even any guidance in how to actually find those people to engage with them.  People need leadership that waves the occasional bloody shirt, but they also need to be given tasks they can accomplish, that accumulate visible progress and build capacity for more and more demanding ones. For example, and it’s only that: “Tonight, before you go to bed, make a phone call to your parents and another to an aunt or uncle. They made you crazy asking “what happened in school today?” for years; now is the time to tell them what’s happening here and what you learned tonight. And then ask them to call their state rep or senator, and have those office phone numbers for them, Googled before your call.”

In the way of teaching, what the audience really needed, I know from discussion in my own classroom, was a clear review of the specific forces and bad decisions that has brought California to where it is, coupled with an open-eyed and explicit recognition that almost every policy problem,  – like our constitutional initiative mechanism – was the solution to a real problem people really had in the past – like the suffocating embrace of California by the Southern Pacific Railroad a century ago. And recognition that generous funding for universities and schools is a democratic decision, not a God-given right of youth, and that saying “less,” whether or not it’s wise or fair, is a legitimate outcome. One speaker started this review of our Gordian knot of policy dysfunction, but never got (for example) to our term limits law and the legislation one can expect from a permanently novice legislature.

I am a strong supporter of public higher education, and when I look around my classroom at the multicolored cohort of students who compliment me with their presence and attention, compare it to the Harvard and MIT courses I used to teach, and reflect on the number of my students who are the first in their families to attend college, I have no trouble knowing why I get up in the morning and go to work. But standing up privatization as a  general-purpose bogeyman is not Berkeley-quality analysis, and most important, it doesn’t hold up with people who have life experiences that don’t match it.  Private higher education in the US is not education from McDonalds or Nordstroms, it is nonprofit education, using a uniquely American mechanism to do things other governments do through their civil services. And Milton Friedman was right in crediting the universally recognized across-the-board international superiority of American public higher education to the existence of this wonderful, irrational, 100% American system of ‘private’ schools nipping at our heels and keeping us working hard at what we do. (The same goes for the non-profit schools, vice versa, and I’m really disheartened by the very feeble presence of the presidents of USC, Stanford, and CalTech (a lot of whose faculty we trained, and a lot of whose graduate students are Bears or Bruins or whatever) in the fight to save the University of California and the Cal State schools. Why aren’t they all over the op-ed pages? This isn’t a zero-sum game!)

One speaker, a political scientist who I think should know better, paraded a catalog of ten disasters, from loss of academic freedom to corporate control of research and teaching, that would befall Berkeley if it were “privatized” (meaning, funded a lot more by tax-deductible contributions from individuals and, yes, corporations).  It was absolutely terrifying, but about halfway through, I realized that I taught at MIT and Harvard for eight and ten years respectively, and neither one was anything like the nightmare she was evoking – not perfect; occasional falls from the high road to be sure; but just nothing like her prediction. And I also realized that, like many of my colleagues, I have taught and visited at several foreign public universities in different countries, and their pure and unsullied publicness has not kept them even in the same league as American schools, public or private. Faculty faxing their teaching in while they work at second jobs, poisonous internal politics and corruption, pathetic, inadequate physical plant, disaffected students, failure to deliver real socioeconomic mobility, methodologically obsessed irrelevant obscurantist research; they have it all. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was thinking, “…wait a minute! We of all people have to make our case with facts and balance!” during that over-the-topness, nor the only one experiencing a similar disquieting itch repeatedly during a lot of the rest of the program.

Colleagues: please let’s don’t become what we despise! Our absolute and comparative advantages both are unraveling complexity, willingness to examine any proposition, seeing all sides, being aware that further examination and continued learning will demonstrate that we were wrong about something, and the courage to stand against a crowd and make it think before it cheers. If we play instruments of which we know not the stops, wield weapons for which we have no training, and slip our intellectual and moral moorings, we will assuredly lose this fight, and deserve to.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “More notes from the California higher education battlefield”

  1. I am not in the state of California, but as I understand the goings on there regarding these walkouts, they had more to do with cutbacks in the state budget which have led to a number of jobs being lost. UC administrators have used 'emergency powers' to implement these cuts – ranging from faculty to custodial staff.

    From what I have read on the subject, I find it curious how you came away with this experience.

  2. Michael;

    I sat next to you at last night's teachin. At the end you made that comment to me about how MIT and Harvard are not as bad as the speaker had pictured in her description of privatization. And I agreed with you on that, as it relates to the general faculty work environment of teaching and research and relations to administration. The speaker did say that "the beast" was already here (and it is here in all our great universities) but she was worrying about its rate of growth.

    To me, the greatest threat of accelerated privatization at UC, and at other great public universities, is the effect it will have on access by qualified undergraduate students who do not come from sufficiently wealthy families.This point was made by many podium speakers and by speakers from the audience as well.

    My own view of last night's teachin was that it was an introductory lecture to an ongoing educational program that must progress and dig deeper into all those issues, and get more complex, and come out with varied proposals for what can be done. I hope to be part of that effort; and I hope you will be too.


  3. On the other hand, MIT and Harvard have developed their partly-donor-supported status over the course of decades, operating mostly in a seller's market. They've taken on (non-endowment) private funding for expansion, new initiatives and improvements to facilities. The UC system, if it goes that route, will be doing so not just in a buyer's market but in a market full of cash-strapped buyers who are going to need serious inducements and promises of ROI to part with their money. Bona fide financial distress is not a strong bargaining position.

    Instead of MIT or Harvard, the analogy might more accurately be all those public high schools that have signed contracts with fast-food companies to keep their cafeterias open and with media startups so that they can "teach" current events.

  4. There is a world of difference between MIT and Harvard. At Harvard, even many minority students are children of privilege. MIT is more like what you described, with a number of students being first in their families. I've studied at both, gone to social activities at both and taught at both. There is a huge difference in attitude and inquisitiveness between that two schools. I don't think you are drawing a fair comparison, you initial warning notwithstanding.

Comments are closed.