11/06/2009

Vision of the New University

The first question that might present itself to anyone engaged in the current struggles at the university is this: is the university to be saved or destroyed?


To some, the answer seems obvious. Those who hope to salvage what may be no more than the university's illusion of public service certainly are right to see higher education as a path towards improved opportunities, towards a more even distribution of economic promise, without regards to race, gender and class. Therefore, demanding that financial aid and work study programs, cultural events, and course offerings in more potentially progressive departments such as Women's Studies, Chicano/a Studies and African American Studies stay off the chopping block is more than just; it is necessary.


To others, the opposite answer seems equally obvious. The university has become nothing more than one more space for venture capitalists to invest in, a space that, through tuition hikes, cuts to affirmative action and cultural programs excludes those it claims to help. It becomes a space where careerist twenty-somethings can buy their tickets to all the sterility of their parents' upper-middle class lives. To say that there is anything worthwhile left in the bureaucracy, cult of professionalism and alienation that attends the university would be tantamount to throwing your arms around a pile of bones.


So what's at the root of these two positions?


1.) The acknowledgment that the public university is caught in a profit model, not a public service model: it benefits from private capital in a way unimaginable at its inception.


In the 1960's the cost of a UC education, in inflation-adjusted dollars, was about $1,500 per year or $6,000 for a four-year education.* Under the November 2009 fee increases, students will be paying over $10,000 per year. So why does tuition cost eight times more while quality plummets?


The answer is in appearance complicated, but at its root, simple: tuition increases, especially in the post-2000 UC plan are largely the effect of the need to pay back private investors. Instead of pushing voters to pass state-backed bonds to help expand the university, instead of putting political pressure on Sacramento to increase state funding, the UC has lured private investment by issuing bonds that can be backed by student tuition.* These bonds can be used to fund construction projects such as the renovation of UCLA's Pauley Pavillion sports center or the new Police Station. Jobs can go to private contractors, who do not necessarily use union labor.

Whereas state funds must go towards education, tuition is more flexible in how it can be used. In case the new projects (a new cafe, for example or a new law building) don't immediately (or ever) turn a profit, the UC can always raise tuition to pay back the interest on its bonds. Because investors know that the UC can always raise tuition and have pledged all tuition in the event of default, it is a "safe" investment for their capital.


2.) Because the university fails to put sufficient political pressure on voters and the state, educational cuts appear as nothing more than necessary evils, the result of an all-around belt tightening. Therefore, in its turn towards private capital, the university, now more than ever, is failing on its promise to be a public service. With tuition money pledged to investors and dwindling state funds, it lays off workers, reduces services, and especially disadvantages students of color and working class students. Entering students who often cannot afford rising tuition costs take out more loans, work longer hours or are forced to drop out. Some of the prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds don't apply or don't get in when enrollment is lowered. The UC reduces services that would help people attend school such as childcare, work-study and cultural programs.


The university has to be remade to abandon the profit model and become a public service with a truly universal scope. The "universal" mission of higher education so far extends only to those willing to suffer through boring high school classes, are good at hiding their drug use, cheating and disinterest, and be willing to go into massive debt for a stake in the economic lottery and the promise of a decent living. True equality of opportunity doesn't mean allowing for better access to a workforce that demands some succeed while others live in poverty.


However, the failure of equal opportunity starts at the K-12 level, as public schools in working class neighborhoods are underfunded, since the tax base is not the same as in your suburban neighborhood across town. The university is just the last part of the slide-off in equal opportunity.


3.) What I would emphasize, that I think both the pro-university and anti-university camps have missed is this:


The university's promise of equal opportunity is not enough, but the fundamental promise of equal opportunity promoted by the university should not be abanonded.


To simply say "destroy the university" reduces the social need for education to a naive catch-all phrase. It is important to rage against this specter of ivy covered majesty, but it cannot be done at the expense of what is liberating about the promise of universal education and the equal distribution of knowledge. On the other hand, to assume that we should preserve a university that funnels students into unequal standards of living is pernicious. Complicity with economic disparity masquerades under the empty slogan of "equal opportunity." Suppose we repealed all the tuition hikes, reinstated all the classes and cut library hours, got back work-study and ended worker furloughs. Suppose we even reduced costs to 1960's levels. Would we be victorious? Yes, if by victory we mean making life more tolerable. But, more emphatically, no, if what we mean is creating a more egalitarian society, where education does not determine economic success.


Instead, the promise of education for all must be radicalized, made a universal demand that strikes at the core of the economic structure:


We call for a university that cares nothing for the worth of what you have done before and has no bearing on your worth in society afterwards. A free university, devoted to universal education.


Therefore, the radical demand we make of the university appears as the most innocuous: since you cannot fulfill your own vision of universal education, we will do it for you and at your expense. Since you cannot use education as a means of liberating people, all people, from inequalities of wealth, class and status, we will take on this task. Since you exclude people from education based on the circumstances of birth, class, gender and race, we will allow everyone to join. Since your alchemy reduces knowledge and skills into the base metal of a person's profitability, we will destroy the link between education and worth. We will burn your degrees, the records of licences acquired, classes taken, scores received, grades inked on a whim.


This new university is impossible for capitalism to realize.


Therefore, we should not ask for the university to be destroyed, nor for it to be preserved. We should not ask it for anything. We should ask ourselves, and each other to take control of these universities, collectively, so that education can begin. We should use this chance to ensure that there are no more job talks, no more shitty lectures to attend, and that the university's degrees, and the little letters they would place after your name mean nothing more than the ashes left after a forest fire.




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*2 Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at Bob Meister's "They Pledged Your Tuition" or "UC on Wall Street" will not fail to be convinced by the role private capital plays in today's public university.

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