Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whose University? On Yudof and "Us"

On May 17, UC President Mark Yudof delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Law Institute (ALI) in San Francisco (via). His talk, titled "Whose University? The Decline of the Commonwealth and Its Meaning for Higher Education," is available both in text form as well as in the video above. Those of us willing to subject ourselves to the torture of watching the full speech in the video, however, will discover that what Yudof actually said diverged in some fairly significant ways from the original script. What we want to do here is think through and analyze Yudof's invocation and mobilization of this highly specific language of protest, on which, as the title of the talk suggests, his entire argument turns.

Consider the following passage, which sets up the rest of the talk. We've edited the passage based on the video, striking out the words that were not said and adding in italics those that were inserted. It begins at about 11:05 in the video:
Now, during the many demonstrations against fee increases, students and their allies have consistently taken up the chant: "Whose university? Our University!" In my day, and admittedly when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, the battle cry was "make love, not war," a call to arms which I personally find more alluring. [Laughter]

But I do get the point the current students are trying to make -- that is, that they have a stake in the administration's decisions administration, they have a stake in the university, they have a stake in the decisions the legislature, the board of regents, and others make.

Still, the more I ruminate over the question "Whose university," the more I realize that this chant actually frames a more profound societal question, one with implications far beyond the University of California, or even public education in general.

It's a question for American society as a whole -- how to distinguish between the "public good" versus the "private good," and how to strike a balance between the two. A balance that navigates at least in my judgment a course between JFK's noble call and the rhetorical stance of some politicians that government is never the solution, only the problem.
Apart from his stale jokes, there are a couple things to notice here in the way Yudof frames the meaning of the rhetorical question and answer "Whose university? Our university!" As in the case of the protesters who chant these words, the question for Yudof is a rhetorical one -- the speaker already knows what the answer is. Tensions emerge at the seams, that is, over the path of the lines that we, with these words, attempt to trace between friends and enemies. What is at stake, in other words, is the meaning of the word "our" and, by extension, of its opposite, "them." Solidarity is how we define friends and enemies.

With this in mind, take a look at the gap between the prepared speech and the actual remarks. Yudof invokes the slogan, and goes on to claim that he understands where the students are coming from: "I do get the point the current students are trying to make." What they want is to have a stake in -- and here the speech diverges from the text -- not the "administration's decisions" but the decisions of the administration, the university, the legislature, the board of regents, and so on. In moving away from the prepared text, Yudof expands the political horizon of the students' supposed demands. How do we read this expansion? A generous reading might suppose that Yudof is acknowledging the call, for example, to "democratize the regents," that is, situating the protests within a broad political context and recognizing just how far-reaching these demands can be. (But we know what Yudof actually thinks about democratizing the regents: "I don't like it much personally speaking.")

Notably, one of the institutions that students supposedly want to have a stake in is not like the others: the administration, the university, and the board of regents constitute the governing apparatus of the UC, but to invoke the legislature is to shift the domain of struggle away from the space of the university. While seemingly expanding the political horizon of possibility, this move at the same time attempts to close the door on a set of tactics and strategies that have proven useful to students, workers, and faculty who see the UC administration as a necessary target in the struggle over public education and against austerity.

It is this move, furthermore, that enables the rest of Yudof's speech. The co-optation of the protest slogan allows him to push "far beyond the University of California, or even public education in general" to "American society as a whole." What he's driving at, in other words, is a more general question of political economy that focuses on the relationship between public and private goods. For Yudof, this argument serves a useful purpose because it situates politics firmly within the realm of the state and within the strategy of the vote. Politics is thus reduced to little more than a question of persuasion, of campaigning, of donations -- similarly, it is isolated within the relatively homogeneous field of political parties, all of which, it turns out, are down with austerity.

Yudof has other reasons for abstracting the conflict to an oversimplified discussion of public and private goods -- because his proposal is to sketch out a "balanced" approach or middle ground. This "hybrid university," as he calls it, occupies an uncomfortable position between the two poles. Uncomfortable because of its instability, oscillating from private to public and back again throughout the talk. But these are rhetorical hues -- the hybrid university that Yudof outlines ends up resembling a corporation more than anything else. He declares, for example, that universities must "look at their operations with a 'private' sensibility. They should establish realistic priorities, eliminate weak programs, adopt money-saving IT services, and aggressively reduce waste." Not only must it adopt corporate practices, but it must also be seen and imagined through a corporate, economistic lens:
[T]he university maintains a critical role in this state's wealth creation. Because if the pie doesn't grow, it's difficult to realize the ambition of bridging the divide between our private and public sectors.

So, in order to preserve these missions, public universities must be able to depend on a three-part funding base -- one of student-family contribution, private support and state funding.
The equilibrium of the "hybrid university," balanced between private and public funding, is undone: the "three-part funding base" has overturned the dual foundations that Yudof originally seemed to propose. It is now two parts private (the student-family debt burden along with corporate investment) to one part public (state funding). As Bob Meister has observed, however, the UC administration has a vested interest in shifting away from state funding, which comes with certain restrictions regarding how it can be used:
[A]lthough tuition can be used for the same purposes as state educational funds, it can also be used for other purposes including construction, the collateral for construction bonds, and paying interest on those bonds. None of the latter uses is permissible for state funds, so the gradual substitution of tuition for state funds gives UC a growing opportunity to break free of the state in its capital funding.
In attempting to shift the location of "Our university!" to the broad terrain of democracy and the "American public in general," Yudof constructs a unified "we" that seeks to conjoin the administration with the protesters, blurring and diffusing the tensions between these structurally opposed positions. Against this "we," presumably, stands the "them" of the state. But we know that those who run the UC are the state: Yudof himself was appointed by the Board of Regents, each of whom was directly appointed by the governor, commonly in return for political favors. Sacramento is everywhere. Yudof's "we" thus serves to confuse and disrupt our lines of solidarity. In the end, it is the UC administration that is to be held responsible for the tuition increases, for the layoffs, for programs eliminated, at the same time as they increase their own ranks and salaries. They are austerity; they are our enemies.

Austerity, of course, is implemented at the barrel of a gun. Behind every fee increase stands a line of riot cops. It goes without saying that Yudof is well aware of this. Returning to his speech at ALI, we find the following paragraph early in his prepared remarks:
I've been forced to preside over the furlough of employees, myself included, and a 40 percent increase in tuition. I've faced a variety of demonstrations -- a rich cornucopia of folks exercising their free speech rights. It's certainly given me a new perspective on my First Amendment course.
But what he actually says is this (starting at 9:10):
I've been forced to do some things which I daresay have not been popular with the faculty, the staff, and the students. I've presided over furloughs of virtually all of our employees, including me -- that really hurt, they celebrated my furlough days at the office; a 40 percent increase in tuition in three years; and I've found . . . that I always had an enthusiasm for the First Amendment. I taught a course on it, Constitutional Law. What can I say: California is a rich cornucopia of folks exercising their free speech rights. [Laughter] It's certainly given me a certain perspective on the Constitution: if I ever go back to law teaching, which I expect, I'm going to start with the Second Amendment, that's my plan. [Laughter] And I may deal with quartering of soldiers, I don't know, Letters of Marque and Reprisal, there are all sorts of things I could deal with. [Laughter]
This is lawyerly humor of the pathological variety -- it's no wonder the lawyers in the audience crack up. Yudof's response to the protests is not, as he suggests in the earlier passage, to "ruminate" on the students' demands, but to rhetorically draw his gun and quarter his soldiers (UCPD) on university grounds. This is the kind of leadership that ends in Jared Kemper pulling his gun on unarmed students at the UC Regents' meeting in November 2010; and police surveillance and infiltration of student groups across the UC system.

And those Letters of Marque and Reprisal?
In the days of fighting sail, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was a government license authorizing a private vessel to attack and capture enemy vessels, and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale.
What we have here, in other words, is a declaration of war. But this war takes a very specific form: the state-sponsored and -authorized expropriation and privatization of enemy (in this case public) goods. In this little bit of improvisation, Yudof reveals, if not the administration's strategy of counterinsurgency, then certainly the violent logic of austerity in its clearest form. Behind heavily-armed and militarized agents vested with the full juridical authority of the state, austerity advances slowly but steadily.

* * *

What we mean when we shout "Whose university? Our university!" has little to do with the legislature or the American public in general. It has to do, as one might expect, with the university. It is our demand that those work at and use the university, those who make it run, those who schedule, teach, and take the classes, those who advise and provide support, those who maintain its spaces -- in short, everything but the bloated administration -- are the ones who should run the university. "We" face off against "them"; they are the management, the administrators. In the end, they will be abolished, as we have no need for their dismal cutbacks, their prefabricated capital projects, their rules of conduct, or their police. They are useless to us.



  1. Without the administration, who will manage grants, who will fundraise from the private sector and alumni, who will manage payroll, who will have the knowledge of how to manage the university's investment portfolio, who will liaise with state government ? These are all spheres of capitalistic management of the university, but we do currently depend on these sources for the university's operation. Where will teachers and researchers find the time and expertise to carry out these functions?

  2. Yeah, the management has been doing such a great job so far!

  3. Anonymous #2, to what in my comment are you responding? My point was that the functions the administration serves are necessary and that many of the people mentioned in the post -- "...those who schedule, teach, and take the classes, those who advise and provide support, those who maintain its spaces..." -- have the time nor expertise (not that they couldn't learn) to execute these functions.

    I did not say anything about whether the people currently in these positions are competent. I have doubts about some -- Jonathan Poullard and the Office of Student Conduct staff completely toxic, and I trust neither Harry LeGrande nor George Breslauer -- but I have little basis for judgment of other administrative staff.

    Are you saying that because there are administrators who are not performing their jobs well, therefore we should permanently get rid of their positions? Using this logic, we should not just fire GSIs who are ineffective teachers, but actually leave those sections entirely without someone to lead discussion.

  4. You're missing the point. It's not about administrators being bad at their jobs -- the worst administrators are the ones who are good at them.

    ...who will have the knowledge of how to manage the university's investment portfolio, who will liaise with state government?

    Those are the wrong questions.