Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Public" [Updated]

The sit-in at the administration building of CSU Fullerton, which began on Monday evening, continues and is currently in its fourth day. Protesters are demanding that CSUF President Milton Gordon sign a "Declaration to Defend Public Education." Gordon's response: "I won't be able to sign this agreement." According to the CSUF paper, the Daily Titan, CSUF administrators justified their stubborn refusal with reference to the language in the statement relating to fair contracts and union negotiations:
Questions arose over the California Faculty Association’s involvement in the meeting and in the drafting of the declaration. Both President Gordon and acting Vice President for Student Affairs Silas Abrego suggested that the meeting itself was a CFA function.

“The declaration makes reference to the CFA,” said Abrego. “There are ongoing negotiations going on right now. There is representatives for the CFA and the CSU in negotiations, we can’t have anyone else intervene in those negotiations.”

Abrego added that the document was a way to generate support for the CFA and attendees were commingling two issues ­-- for a better contract and better education.

After the issue was discussed, two CFA members who were present removed themselves from the room.

Gordon continued to stress that he would not sign the statement or any agreement at all despite the pleas of students and faculty.
The union issue is clearly an important one. At the UC we've seen administrators literally slam the door in the face of union members. But Gordon's continued rejection to sign anything at all -- he refused to "sign the statement or any agreement at all" -- even after the CFA members had left voluntarily suggests that there's something more at stake in the standoff.

It's the word "public."

First take a look at the Declaration, written by students, faculty and staff from CSUF, CSU Long Beach, CSU Los Angeles, Compton College, Fullerton College, and Mt. San Antonio College. The first part of the statement is a sort of general preamble:
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

We, the students, staff, and educators of California’s public schools,colleges, and universities, call upon the people of the state to recommit to and reinvest in public education as the principal foundation of a democratic society.

Public education is a sacred trust and needs to be protected from those who would see the state divest even further from its constitutional obligations.

Public education is a public good and needs to be protected from the for profit interests of the private sector.

We call upon the people of California to recognize that, though an educated workforce is essential to our prosperity, education itself has a social value that cannot be reduced to monetary considerations alone.

Public education brings together diverse communities of educators, staff and students in ways that prepare learners for a productive yet socially responsible life.

Public education creates spaces that promote the intellectual and emotional development of tolerant, critically-engaged citizens.

Public education is by definition open to all Californians, regardless of geographic location or socio-economic status, and is thus the very cornerstone of a vibrant, principled, and fundamentally compassionate democracy.
This is not, whatever these administrators might mistakenly think, a particularly radical statement. Even apart from the fact that a statement is all it is -- it's not legislation or a policy decision, it doesn't lock Gordon into doing anything at all -- it amounts to a simple acknowledgment of the value of public education. And its public character is heavily emphasized: every paragraph but one (notably, the one that talks about economics and "monetary considerations") includes the word.

Now compare the Declaration to the statement that President Gordon made in a follow-up letter to the editor that was published yesterday in the Daily Titan:
I commend students for their active engagement in critical issues facing our university and the CSU during these challenging fiscal times. I agree with and support many of the points of the Declaration to Defend Public Education and encourage all students to ensure that their voices are heard.

Your amplified demands for quality education are timely and provide a significant opportunity to maximize the importance of this message to the people and government leaders in the state of California. In your recent call for action through peaceful demonstration April 13 and during our meeting that day, students exemplified the values we embrace at Cal State Fullerton -- civic engagement, positive interaction and dialogue with faculty, staff and administration, as well as civility and respect for those whose opinions differ from your own.

The state budget crisis is at the heart of the fiscal challenges we face. Lessening its effect on the CSU continues to be the highest priority of the CSU chancellor, the CSU presidents and other leaders of our system. Despite this year’s increase in tuition fees, the cost of a CSU education remains the lowest of comparable institutions around the nation. At the same time, one-third of these tuition fees are set aside for the neediest of students, which serves to preserve access to higher education for those who can least afford it.

I am committed to continuing to work toward access to a high quality university education and to keeping the lines of communication open as we work through these difficult times together. Please continue to take an active role in support of providing quality public education for all deserving students.

Dr. Milton A. Gordon
California State University, Fullerton
The word "public" appears once, aside from the place where he mentions the name of the document that he's refusing to sign. Just once. And take a careful look at that sentence: "Please continue to take an active role in support of providing quality public education for all deserving students." It is only students who must "continue" to support public education -- he's most definitely not saying anything about himself or his administration. This is an incredibly revealing statement.

In place of "public," Gordon seems very comfortable with the word "quality." Not a public education, but a "quality education" is what he wants his CSU to provide. What comes to our mind is the recent statement by UC President Mark Yudof regarding what he called the UC's "compass points":
Yudof said the university has long operated on three "compass points" -- access, affordability and excellence.

"We are moving dangerously close to having to say: pick two of the three. That’s my view, and the excellence is nonnegotiable," he said. "We are going to have to look at access and affordability."
What Gordon, Yudof, and other administrators are talking about with their vague, bureaucratic language is privatization. Yudof says it outright, marginalizing and putting up for negotiation the categories of access and affordability. Gordon, on the other hand, continues to speak of "access," but does so in the context of a sort of generalized resignation, a complete acceptance of the talking point that this sort of thing is "inevitable." Budget cuts at the state level cannot and will not be fought. He says it outright: the job of the CSU administration is not to combat these cuts but rather to "lessen their effects." University administration has become a task of restructuring, of imposing austerity, of privatizing, of moving the financial burden onto the backs of students and workers. It has become a corporation, with corporate salaries and perks from foundations.

Why doesn't Gordon want to sign the Declaration? Not because of the CFA, or ongoing negotiations. It's because he doesn't want to use the word "public." At best, he believes it's outdated or obsolete; at worst, he thinks it doesn't work, that is, that education shouldn't be public. Regardless, we can now say that it's become official: CSUF President Gordon does not support public education, period. It's that simple.

[Update Thursday 1:34 pm]: This op-ed by Peter Cornett in the Daily Titan is pretty on point and seems to be the source of the data in the above tweets.

[Update Friday 11 am]: The sit-in has finally ended, after President Gordon gave in and agreed to sign a statement. Note that he did not sign the original "Declaration to Defend Public Education" that we looked at above but rather a revised "Statement in Defense of Public Education." At first glance, the changes seem fairly minor. But that doesn't mean they're not significant. Check out, for example, the one part where the text refers to administrators. Here's the original Declaration:
A commitment from administrators, school boards, teachers unions, staff unions, student organizations, parent groups, professional associations, community-based organizations, and postsecondary institutions to work together with the State to provide quality education for all people regardless of gender, economic, social, ethnic, or racial status.
And the revised Statement:
A commitment from administrators, school boards, teachers unions, staff unions, student organizations, parent groups, professional associations, community-based organizations, postsecondary institutions and state leadership to provide quality education for all people regardless of gender, economic, social, ethnic, or racial status.
What strikes us here is the way the revisions enable a shift of responsibility away from administrators et al. While the original Declaration makes it clear that administrators must commit to working "with the State" (e.g. lobbying), in the revised Statement the state is incorporated into those actors that directly "provide quality education" (there's that word again). Administrators are, to some extent, off the hook. The revised statement thus fits with our earlier analysis of Gordon's letter to the editor (which, it should be noted, remains the clearest example of his own position on "public" [read "quality"] education), inasmuch as the responsibility can now be laid at the feet of the "state leadership" and budget cuts remain out of reach, inevitable.

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