Thursday, October 6, 2011

Newfield rips ex-chancellors' pro-privatization letter

A group of former UC chancellors recently published one of those pro-privatization 'letters' we've all come to know and hate. What's remarkable about this letter is that it was composed by a group of retirees (who voluntarily decided to echo the current UCOP line), and it comes at a time when there is actually some question about whether the latest UCOP proposal to lock in fee hikes of up to 81% will ultimately be approved by the Regents. In other words, these guys are going public to provide political cover for Mark 'sorry about that mansion' Yudof.

Over at Remaking the University, Chris Newfield posted the text of the letter, annotated with his critical comments. It's pretty devastating. Here's a highlight:

Contrary to public perception, all the evidence suggests that that higher tuition is not a barrier for students—including low-income and minority students—as long as it is combined with adequate financial aid.

So you all agreed? Sadly, you all are wrong. During the twenty years that states have been shifting university costs from the taxpayer to the student, relative degree attainment has declined, continuation rates are flat or falling, and the US has completely destroyed its international educational advantage. For the first time in its history, younger people are less educated than their baby-boomer parents (p 10). The proportion of U.S. students starting college who actually finish is now 56 percent, placing the U.S. with its world's highest tuition levels twenty-ninth out of the thirty countries measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Tuition increases have degraded affordability and reduced attainment (p 8). California, one of the world’s wealthiest places, has seen one of the most astonishing declines in college achievement. The state’s continuation fell from 66 percent to 44 percent in just eight years (1996-2004). California’s rank among states in investment in higher education declined during the same period from fifth to forty-seventh, according to Thomas Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst (ibid). The idea that financial aid protects low-income students is a myth, one that dies a thousand deaths in an exacting study of a unique public university data base, William G. Bowen et al's Crossing the Finish LIne, which shows that low-income students borrow more than higher-income students and increase their borrowing with each ongoing year in college, among other disturbing findings.

And so on--there is no evidence that non-debt aid keeps up with tuition increases, or that further hikes won't futher damage overall US educational levels, the improvement of which is the main reason why public higher ed was built out in the first place. All we see here is a group of former chancellors radiating an indecent complacency about access, one that is out of touch with current research about the damage done to educational attainment by the Great Cost Shift to students.


  1. I guessI still think it's worth noting that, no matter how thorough his debunking and how charming his scorn, Newfield's conclusion is always, without fail, that someone should "make the case" to someone else: faculty to the administration, the regents to the state, and so on. And yet there is no indication that we are in a situation where "making the case" has any traction — and much countervailing evidence. So while I appreciate Newfield's diligence and his perspicacity and clarity as a reader, I think the great truth of his annotated letter is not the mendacity and creepiness of these former Chancellors, but the inability of even the best-intentioned liberal to arrive at adequate conclusions about the objective situation and what it calls for.

  2. Certainly, there is little of interest here at the level of strategy and tactics. But it can't hurt to have the case for privatization revealed to be empty, and those making the case cynical.

  3. Yeah, I take your point. I guess it sort of depends on whether one believes that the real limit to current response is a lack of awareness of that cynicism and the process it enables, or that the real limit is a capacity to think meaningful retort. And while it is sort of comforting to believe the former — if people only knew, they would do something! — I guess I no longer can hold to that idea. It seems increasingly apparent that the limit of response lies profoundly in what the peole who care about the issue are open to pursuing.

    In the end I fear, and I know this is an odd and hard thing to say, that Chris Newfield, for all his exemplary attention to this matter (for a long time! He's no crisis-bird), causes more problems than he creates in regard to even such a limited goal as preserving public education. Even as he makes the cynical reason of those on high visible, he obscures the character of the objective situation, so that fantasy solutions can continue to hold the day — being far easier to pursue, after all.

  4. I hear what you are saying, but I'd find this kind of critique more persuasive if a lot of energy were in fact being spent on, say, a ballot initiative or a letter-writing campaign. In 2009, this was more the case (with Lakoff's initiative and all -- but even then, very few potential activists actually got sucked into electoral stuff). At this point though, the relatively more radical forces are pretty much the only ones on the block. And while someone might show up at a meeting here or there to talk about ballot initiatives, this isn't something we are forced to actually contend with on a day to day basis. We've just got to go from here, materialize our force, and see what comes.

    I actually think that the situation, w/rt the faculty, is more dire than would be suggested by your analysis -- in which the problem is a failure to contend with the objective situation, the fact that militancy offers our only way out, etc. My sense is that the faculty has become at least tacitly allied with the Regents, and not because they advocate 'educating the state'. Rather, because they actually support tuition hikes, given the apparent hopelessness of state reinvestment in public education. In other words, the bulk of the faculty understand the objective situation (the money isn't coming back), and have decided which side of the line they're on. And yet, they want to see themselves as liberals, if not radicals, so there's a lot of bad faith and cynicism mixed in with this... Without papering over its unsatisfying elements, I'd see a post like Newfields as useful insofar as it potentially unsettles the notion that tuition hikes don't necessarily exclude working class students, or indebt them; that privatization isn't so bad after all...

  5. Dear a,

    well, we may be splitting hairs here. We think many similar things. Our general hypothesis is the same, I think: that what is most important is getting rid of the rhetorical alibis that allow others (rather than than the faculty) to remain quiescent.

    But here is the hair I would split: you write,

    "My sense is that the faculty has become at least tacitly allied with the Regents, and not because they advocate 'educating the state'. Rather, because they actually support tuition hikes, given the apparent hopelessness of state reinvestment in public education."

    First let me say, I agre about the alliance with the Regents. But as a side note, I am not quite sure how that "not" works — the faculty do advocate educating the state, after all, seemingly sincerely. Thus the "rather" above strikes me also as a little off; it's more like, "as well." That is, the faculty proceeds as if they believe two precisely contradictory things: that the only way out is arguing for returned state suport, and that the only way out is increased tuition.

    Which would seem to validate Newfield's approach, in so far as he argues that there must as least be the seeming of a commitment not to increase tuition, so as to compel the state not to take such increases for granted in their budgetary deliberations. He is, effectively, trying to resolve he contradiction of the faculty by saying, just stop believing the latter. Believe only the former.

    Bt here we must concede that the faulty have in fact understood the situation better than Newfield. If they're right that the money ain't coming back, Newfield's resolution of the contradiction is meaningless and mistaken. He is arguing for an effective belief, against objective reality. We call that idealism.

    The most cynical thing I can say, therefore, is that it would ne for the faculty just to fess up to the latter and abandon the Newfieldian delusion — at least we would have a clearer image of the terrain, and folks could take the adequate position toward the faculty. I imagine that, if the fantasy of "making the case" were finally pitched, a few faculty would realize that the real choice is between endlessly increasing tuition and university self-management, and make the right decision. A few, not many.

    But wouldn't it have a more significant impact outside the faculty? Wouldn't they in fact — finally! — show some leadership, if only by negative example? If the faculty were to abandon all "make the case" rhetoric and say "we can see no way to avoid ever-increasing tuition short of a Greek or Chilean confrontation with the state, and we won't do that," wouldn't that — finally! — help provide an objective terrain in which those not in the university's rentier class could proceed?

    Maybe I am just saying the same thing over and over: that the "third way" fantasy (neither capitulation nor confrontation; we never have to do anything beyond the regime of managementality) offers pure obstacle, and needs to be cleared rigorously. Peace to your village.

  6. yes, i'd agree that we're basically discussing at this point the question of what kinds of activity, on the part of members of the faculty, are likely to enable or disable others -- exploited in, excluded from and/or indebted by the university -- from bringing the institution to a stop, and then starting something new...

    i'm kind of agnostic on the question of whether it'd be better for the bulk of the faculty to say something like you suggest, not that it would likely ever happen (the combination of ideology and willful ignorance being a real barrier here). of course, it'd be satisfying to hear. but how it would relate to radical organizing by other sectors in and beyond the university feels like an open question to me.

    ultimately, for me what it comes down to is that we're most likely to form a critical account of the situation we face through shared struggle, not through the leadership -- negative or positive -- of the faculty, or anyone else. people start from a lot of different places; some might join an action because they have read, or otherwise taken up, a liberal critique of privatization. some might join because they've realized, or heard a convincing argument, that militancy is our only way out... the question, it seems to me, is how we relate to formations in process in order to enable these and other somewhat divergent positions and passions to constitute a striking machine.

  7. Yup, I would be foolish to gainsay that.