Saturday, July 13, 2013

UC President Napolitano and the "Securitized" University

Since the UC regents’ pick for Mark Yudof’s replacement was announced yesterday—and after getting over the shock—folks have raised a number of important objections. One such criticism is that Janet Napolitano is not qualified for the position, since she has never worked at a university in any capacity. The objection hasn’t been helped by the UC’s notoriously incompetent public relations machine, which clumsily identified the fact that her father was the dean of the University of New Mexico’s medical school as a clear sign that “a passion for education is in her DNA.” This claim, to say the least, does not inspire much confidence in the regents’ decision.

But this criticism carries some problems of its own. As others have pointed out (and most of the ideas laid out here are borrowed directly from the linked conversation), the notion that Napolitano’s lack of educational qualifications should exclude her over and above anyone else turns on a highly romanticized idea of the university as an institution dedicated primarily to education and run, therefore, by its educational employees, the faculty. However appealing this vision of the university is to many faculty today, and however true it may once have been in some decidedly utopian past, the fact is that today the university is not primarily an educational institution. As in the case of the conventional criticism of the “corporatization” of the public university, the answer here is pretty much the same: the university has already been “corporatized,” and it has never really been “ours.”

These days, the public research university is run not by its faculty or even its president but its CFO. It is not that Nathan Brostrom, the UC’s Executive Vice President for Business Operations, actually calls the shots when the regents sit down together at the table, but rather that he (and others like him) lays out the conditions in which every decision, from tuition hikes and out-of-state admissions to taking on debt in order to finance construction projects, will ultimately be made. As the university becomes more and more leveraged, its marching orders will increasingly come from Wall Street, which for its part is simultaneously reaping enormous profits off the securitization of student debt.

At the same time, Napolitano does signal a change, the recognition that it is no longer “business discipline” but “martial discipline” that is key to the university’s continued operation. It is an acknowledgment that the university in general, and the UC in particular, will continue to be a site of struggle. If the Occupy movement drew heavily from the student occupations of 2008-2009 in New York and the UC, perhaps Napolitano’s arrival reflects the state’s recognition of the possibility that struggles over the university can resonate and explode in unsettling and unpredictable ways.

UC President Napolitano, in other words, could be seen as presiding over the first fully “securitized” public university, in the dual senses of the word. Of course, the university has long formed part of the military-industrial complex. Napolitano’s appointment is meant to double down on the UC’s turn to federal research dollars and weapons development. The Washington Post’s article originally stated that “the university’s search committee was drawn to her experience in Obama’s Cabinet, believing that she might help the UC system advance its federally funded programs, including . . . nuclear weapons labs.” (Strangely this sentence, which we tweeted yesterday, seems to have been silently removed, although it’s still quoted in this piece in the Examiner.) Likewise, Napolitano is not the first member of the United States’ security apparatus to become president of the UC. Charles J. Hitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1961-1965, was appointed UC president two years later and served in that capacity for eight years.

But the specificity of Napolitano, perhaps, is seen in the convergence of these two forms of “security,” one financial and the other repressive. If our classic slogan “behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops” responds to the intimate ties between austerity and policing, the violence of financialization clarified and crystallized in the UC regents’ decision suggests that the terrain of struggle, while structured in many ways by continuities, has shifted in important ways. Maybe it's time to update that slogan.

(Image borrowed from UCMeP)

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