Occupy UC

On Monday, the Berkeley faculty will have a special meeting to consider several resolutions condemning the police behavior at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstration, and another resolution that says in part:

Therefore be it Resolved that the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate has lost confidence in the ability of Chancellor Birgeneau, EVC Breslauer and VC LeGrande to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.

This is going to be a complicated, awkward (not that that’s a fatal flaw) exercise that will probably not clarify much for anyone.  In the first place, the “Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate” is not a representative body but a committee of the whole 2000-odd of us, and its meetings are rarely attended by more than 100. Obviously it meets in a dense cloud of selection bias that obscures its legitimacy, so its resolutions and actions don’t seem to be taken very seriously by the campus authorities, who can easily say, “well, that’s what several dozen malcontents think, end of story”.  In the second place, the motion uses very strong language. Despite having signed the call for the meeting, mainly because I think this stuff desperately needs to be discussed, I’m not sure I’ve lost confidence precisely in the leadership’s ability to protect protesters from beating and chemical assault. Admittedly, it’s hard to reconcile the chancellor’s public words from two years ago on the occasion of excessive police force at the Wheeler Hall occupation

Any tactics to exercise crowd control on campus must provide a safe platform for expression of free speech and freedom of assembly and we expect that, as a result of this review, modifications will be made. We must strive to ensure that there is no possibility in the future of the alleged actions of police brutality and that our actions are guided by non-violence.

with what happened three weeks ago, but probably the latest quite broad outrage and criticism have got their attention and they will not make that mistake (whether of omission or commission doesn’t matter too much) again.

But that’s not the big mistake, outrageous as it was. Another reason the meeting and the resolution are somewhat off-target is the blurring of different issues in the protests themselves. At Cal, public action has been pretty specifically directed at the chancellor, president, and regents, demanding increased state funding for higher education and reducing student fees (as though any of them had money to give out).  I regret this focus, because it looks self-serving and narrow; if tuition at Berkeley dropped to zero, (i) the students would still be facing terrible trouble because their state political machinery is broken, they will have trouble getting jobs and keeping them, and we have run out of tricks with which to pretend it isn’t necessary to pay for essential state services (like schools for their kids) (ii) the majority of the population not lucky enough to go to college at any price are already much worse off than they are. In any case, the chancellor and president have been vocal (though ineffectual – probably inevitably) advocates for restoring state funding for higher education, and while I don’t have a good sense of the President Yudof’s personality either way, I believe Birgeneau to be a decent person who genuinely believes in educational access for everyone, in social and economic mobility generally, and also in not breaking his students’ and faculty’s ribs or dragging them on the ground by the hair.

The Occupy Cal protests, however, are part of a larger movement directed at the unconscionable increase in US economic inequality over the last thirty years and a widespread perception that the 1% who have been scooping up everything in sight have not contributed social value to society in any way proportional to the loot they have been collecting.  Income is supposed to reflect the value you create; Steve Jobs made a lot of people a lot better off in many ways, but what the financial sector’s big winners have done for us is, um, less clear. The big mistake is that campus (and university) leadership is a day late and a dollar short on the disintegration of the American economic and political systems.

Leadership is supposed to shape, direct, clarify, and empower a group’s values, and to represent those values to the larger environment (and to the group).  In the end, what I don’t have confidence in is our current leadership’s ability to do is any of that on the larger issues.  I brought this up with my public policy students in one course, mentioning that in 1986, Berkeley had divested itself of South African investments, manifesting and implementing (not just stating) an institutional position against apartheid.  I asked if they wanted the president or chancellor to represent, in their name,  that UC Berkeley is against endlessly increasing income inequality in America.  I was surprised to learn that their support for this idea was tepid at best, mainly (I think) because they sense a slippery slope of public university officials taking positions on all sorts of things without a real mandate.  And of course we have no machinery by which to unambiguously give such a mandate; it’s not even possible to email everyone on campus, the faculty senate is a noisy channel, and student government…well, the less said about its political efficacy the better.

As I rarely do, I think my students (at least this sample) are wrong.  I fault Birgeneau for being both invisible to the troops except as a source of inept spam emails, and the author of managerial choices that are incomprehensible to me, dithering around the edges of the crises rather than doing consequential things.  Why hasn’t he had a big meeting in the Greek Theatre of students and faculty to make some noise about the economic and political crisis in the state and nation, and put duties and tasks before us; if not us, who? Why hasn’t his discourse on police violence here been a real cry of rage that his instructions from 2009 were ignored, backed up with rolling heads and visits to the injured students?  Why isn’t he out walking around during demonstrations, getting between the cops and student bodies and putting good quotes on TV news?  There’s a lot of energy being released diffusely, and he should be the one directing it usefully. Afraid the regents will fire him? There are a lot worse things to lose than your job.

The crisis we’re enduring, like any crisis, is the occasion for a real leader to focus attention and break some habits and bonds of tradition, even at the cost of some collateral crockery. That’s not happening: instead (for example, my own hobbyhorse) of setting up a real quality assurance program that would reach every session of every course so we could show the public we’re going to overdeliver the learning the state has traditionally paid us to provide, he fired the Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning, rolled her functions into another administrator’s very large portfolio, and hired a consulting firm to cut administrative costs. Instead of bringing the intercollegiate athletics program to heel as though it reported to him, and stanching $12m a year of bleeding, he’s allowing us to be saddled with a half-billion dollar debt for an over-the-top stadium upgrade and a conditioning center/coaching office palace/booster party venue that will crush us financially.

I will probably vote for the resolution, even though it’s not exactly what I want to say and despite my discomfort making such a strong statement against someone whose heart is in the right place. But Birgeneau is way over his head in his job, served by inadequate lieutenants, or both. Some kind of wakeup call is in order, and this is the motion on the table.

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.

20 thoughts on “Occupy UC”

  1. Since I got my lungs full of tear gas from the famous May 69 helicopter, I feel entitled to an opinion here. My bloviation gland is all ready to produce – only problem is finding any daylight between your views and mine. I do think that if tuition at Berkeley dropped to zero the money to support the school would have to come at the expense of other public purposes; middle and upper-middle class parents shouldn’t be getting their kids’ swell education paid for by taxes extracted from people lower on the totem pole than they.

    The crisis at Occupy Cal is peripheral to the real social dislocations which have people flailing for answers. The rules being set by national and state governments are a far more fruitful place to look for levers against inequality. Years ago, Paul Volcker gave a speech in which he said we are spending 4 ½ per cent of GDP on the financial sector, that historical levels were about 1 ½ per cent, and we should aim to get back closer to 1 ½ per cent. That’s one place to look for money to fund the universities. Another is prison reform: a truly invasive and active parole system, with GPS on ankle bracelets, can claw back a lot of the money now going into prisons. If we stop requiring that every insurance agent have a college degree, some kids who don’t want or like the time at school can get on with their lives, no debt. All that said, Berkeley’s response here has been distressing, not helpful.

  2. Why not Occupy the California State Legislature, which is the source of the problems at the universities in California?

  3. I wish it were so simple. The legislature gave itself safe seats, hence polarizing elections-by-primary. But voters crippled the legislature with super-majority budget and tax increase requirements, term limits, and initiative budgeting. Incredibly, California voters still favor Proposition 13 by wide margins, even as the state falls into ruin. “The” source of the problem is several intersecting strands of mutually infantilizing behavior by elected and business leadership, the educational system, and voters themselves.

  4. Michael, this is why I’ve been badgering you about the (IMHO, foolish) things that you’ve said about OWS. You and the tenured faculty at Berkeley are in a uniquely protected and privileged position to affect things, with little fear of retaliation. But you haven’t done squat, except for some resolutions which the administration doesn’t even use as toilet paper, since they probably use silk.

  5. One factor I think you ignore in your call for an institutional stance is the political economy [1] of the privatized-public model towards which UC is striving. President Yudof stated that “quality” was the one non-negotiable factor for UC. If you couple this with a (reasonable) assessment that reliance on increased state funding is basically off the table, then the zero-sum arms race of spending on facilities and article-pumper-poaching pushes you to the high-tuition, high-aid model of most privates (and pioneered among the public flagships by Michigan).

    In this model, you start playing the same resource-game as the Ivies. And with this model, you don’t bite the hand that feeds. It’s a practical decision by Birgeneau: UC is better-served by having Bank of America fund a new auditorium at Haas than by some symbolic position against an abstract idea.

    All this is to say that, institutionally, big research universities behold themselves — by the very nature of their competitive environment — to the actors who’ve stuck the straw in the social till, and make their bones off income concentration. I think to ignore this structural element is endow university leaders with much more agency than they actually possess.

    [1] As an alumnus of the Political Economy of Industrial Societies major, I am entitled to abuse such phrasing in common discourse; it helps make up for the obfuscation of the signal in the labor market.

    1. “It’s a practical decision by Birgeneau: UC is better-served by having Bank of America fund a new auditorium at Haas than by some symbolic position against an abstract idea.”

      And the social value of a university isn’t just as abstract an idea? I suppose it matters not whether a university is public or private to some of the employees.

  6. DWG: ditto, except for that last sentence, because I don’t know which signal you refer to.

    College presidents aren’t hired for any of these skills, I think, Professor. It would be nice, but they are fundraisers now. And they get paid a lot so that they won’t be embarrassed to talk to millionaires, I think.

  7. DWG: ditto, except for that last sentence, because I don’t know which signal you refer to.

    College presidents aren’t hired for any of these skills, I think, Professor. It would be nice, but they are fundraisers now. And they get paid a lot so that they won’t be embarrassed to talk to millionaires, I think.

  8. I don’t understand what’s going on with either this post or the comments thereto. Prof. O’Hare begins by telling us that there is a “no confidence” vote scheduled on Monday in the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. O’Hare kind of, maybe isn’t sure that Birgeneau is particularly interested in preventing students from being beaten, arrested and sprayed with toxic chemicals. Maybe the current chancellor isn’t the right man for the job and maybe somebody should be held to account for what happened. But then again, maybe not. Birgeneau is a nice, if regrettably ineffectual person, whose heart is really in the right place and besides there is so much else wrong with the world. There are problems with funding. There are problems with the state budget. There are problems with the new stadium. And so forth. Shouldn’t we address them first or maybe at the same time?

    Almost without exception, the comments to this post do the same by veering off into fascinating, important, but tangential questions; none of which are actually going to be voted upon tomorrow. Only the question of whether Chancellor Birgeneau and his posse can be trusted to protect students from excessive police violence. That’s it. So why can’t we just for a moment focus on the actual resolution that’s being voted on.

    Now, I’m not a member of the Berkeley faculty but if I were I would not hesitate for a single instant to vote in favor of the resolution and to continue to agitate for the chancellors at Berkeley and Davis to be replaced. In Birgeneau’s case, he unleashed the local police even after he must have been aware of excessive police violence in instance after instance—-and, most particularly, in Oakland. On might well argue that calling in the police to remove people from Sproul Plaza under those circumstances was the same as giving a green light for a continuation of the battle which took place in Oakland. If he couldn’t see that, then he’s an idiot and should be fired.

    By the same token, even if he didn’t want the police to violently engage the Berkeley students as they had engaged the Occupy movement in Oakland, he certainly had a duty to be present and to make sure that the police didn’t attack his students (whose safety and welfare are among his paramount responsibilities). Where was he when the police showed up in riot gear and began staging for an assault on the camp? Where was he when the police were viciously beating students, faculty and the occasional poet?

    Bottom line for me: If Birgeneau couldn’t foresee the police violence, especially after what took place in Oakland, then he’s either too stupid or too ineffectual to be chancellor. If he got the result desired, then he’s a bad person who shouldn’t be in a position who he is in charge of the welfare of young people.

    There are two chancellors (and, ideally, the president of UC) who we should all be focused on removing from the UC system. That’s what needs to be done right now and that’s what’s on the agenda for Monday. Yes, we should and will work to restore the UC system to what it was before Ronald Reagan and Prop. 13 but that’s for another day. Let’s get rid of these clowns right now.

  9. “but probably the latest quite broad outrage and criticism have got their attention and they will not make that mistake (whether of omission or commission doesn’t matter too much) again.”

    I suspect that is what you believed two years ago. Please (as Brad DeLong says) mark that probability to market.

    If you come up believing that The Way to Bet is still against the Chancellor and the police continuing to resort to violence, then I want to know the size behind your willingness to wager–primarily because I assume you have more disposable income than I do, and I want a chance to call some friends who will also recognize “the sucker at the table.”

  10. @ Mike S., Thank you for the update. Words utterly fail me. These people are pathetic. I can only shamelessly steal from John Adams and say that in my many years I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is an academic senate.

  11. Anothor possibility, of course, that would almost certainly reduce violence, is for the university to firmly commit itself to enforcing it’s own rules.

    In other words, treat “intentionally hindering a police officer in the performance of his duties” (a felony in most jurisdictions) as a serious problem, at least as serious as discriminatory harassment; make it clear that if there’s a picture of you blocking a police officer, you will be expelled from the university.

  12. Awww, Sam Chevre, it’s absolutely ADORABLE how much you admire the indiscriminate abuse of armed authoritarianism. It’s attitudes like yours that make the 1 percent so cuddly. We want you and the guys in armor with guns to dictate ALL our actions, and if we object, to deny our future economic opportunity. It’s really how a great society should operate.

    Just to make sure, you want to be a SHEPHERD, yes? Other people get to be the sheep, right? Oh goody!

  13. Actually, no–I’d like the future shepherds to have to follow the same rules as the future sheep, instead of having this “Oh, you are so special–why should you have to obey the same laws as everyone else” rigamarole.

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