Sunday, March 6, 2011

Whose Wheeler Hall?

A UC Berkeley grad student who teaches a class in Wheeler Hall sent the following reflections on property, the police, and the administration to her students:

The same questions I ask about the claims over "intellectual property" have always been worth asking about physical property. By what right do people claim the right to exclude? What rights do people who labor and create have to define access and share what they have?

Those of you who tried to come on Thursday, I apologize -- the police let several of us in and we were inside the building until police came and told us the chancellor was closing the building at which point we had to leave.
A question this course should lead you to ask is: by what right does the chancellor get to close Wheeler Hall? Whose property is it?

Know that this university exists because the land was donated by the state to the university in exchange for it providing free education to the citizens of California. In terms of labor theories of value, if the labor of teachers is part of the educational mission, at what point do teachers get to decide what happens on school property? If you believe, as I do, that students' labor is also part of education -- helping create what is learned by all in the classroom, what right do students have to make use of the spaces that were given as sites of education? If there is disagreement or diversity of opinion, who or what should arbitrate these rights?

I later got an email from the chancellor saying there was a "health and safety issue" in Wheeler which necessitated closing it. This seems odd to me. I also heard from a friend who was stopping by Wheeler (a volunteer medic) that police had pepper-sprayed and beaten protesters with batons while attempting to remove them from the area. (Was that the health and safety issue? If so, I can think of a few ways short of closing the building that could have protected people.)

I encourage you to think about the primacy of property rights in what happened at Wheeler Hall. Property rights in objects were supreme over rights over people's own bodies. The rights to bodily integrity of the students were not as important as the rights of the chancellor to control what happens in Wheeler Hall. It's true there may have been a concern about damage to the building -- but during the first occupation a police officer smashed the hand (and nearly took off the finger) of a student who was participating in the protests (nonviolently and not causing property damage), and yet police are still allowed on campus. The costs and the harm of  batons and pepper spray are not as much concern to the university as the right of the university to control property.
Whose rights are being protected by this? (Note that we were carrying on our section without a problem until this happened, it was the police who were limiting access.)

Of course there is the question of [a] student's right to pursue an education without protest. As above, who should be the arbiter between those different opinions about educational priorities in situations where protesters ARE disrupting classes?

But also, what happens if you include the rights of the students and former students, and also the janitors (speaking of keeping the building in good shape) who are no longer on campus because of the policies like fee hikes and the layoffs dictated by Operational Excellence? Did they have any rights? Milton Friedman (whom we read this week) would say no. But what about the founders of the UC system and its mission?

Also, the rights of nonprotesting students to pursue an education are affected anyway, because even despite the massive fee increases the resulting funds have not gone to education: class sizes are increasing, labs are cut, teaching resources are cut, class sessions are cut (this course has four fewer classes than usual because of the cuts), libraries are closed, construction disrupts the campus as much as protests.
I hope this is food for thought and future discussion!


  1. To pick a piece...

    Construction and capital projects are funded directly from the State. I've seen several posts slighting "construction" on campus in a disillusioned manner. I'm so sorry that we need to renovate old buildings (how about that Law School?), that we should probably build new ones, and that some should be modified so as not to cause DEATH (from earthquakes, etc).

    "despite the massive fee increases the resulting funds have not gone to education"
    Seems pretty clear to me that if the State takes away funding for the UC, then the fee increases will need to make up AS MUCH OF THAT SHORTFALL AS POSSIBLE. In the event that tuition/fee increases cannot cover 100% of the missing funds, I think reduced course numbers and increasing class sizes would come about.

  2. um nope. you clearly have no idea how this works. did you even read bob meister's piece? money from the state is can't be used as collateral for construction bonds. that's exactly why the university has to raise tuition -- and promise the bond raters on wall street that they'll keep raising it -- because that's the university's primary source of collateral.

  3. Do you understand 'collateral'? You don't spend it. Tuition dollars are spent on other things, not buildings. Yes, they _also_ serve as collateral, because that results in lower interest rates and allows UC to spend money on other things instead of on interest. But it's the shortfall's in State funds that caused the tuition increases, not some un-demonstrated need for additional collateral.

    Bob Meister was challenged about his analysis by two talks in the faculty budget seminar last year. They both showed details and asked Meister, who was present, for specific examples. All he did was bluster, a poor demonstration of reasoning for a UC professor.