Monday, May 11, 2015

What Makes a University Public?: Privatization, Environmental Racism, and UC Berkeley’s Real Estate Office

by Beezer de Martelly

“It’s a gift to be here—you can take that to the bank.”
EVCP Claude Steele, May 5 Berkeley Forum “What Makes a University Public?”

“There is deferred maintenance all over the place.”
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, May 5 Berkeley Forum “What Makes a University Public?”

For those who haven’t been paying attention, UC Berkeley’s recent move to expand the Real Estate Office’s control has led to some strange and shocking administrative moments in the last couple weeks.

One such moment was a May 5 Berkeley Forum in which Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele hosted a chat called “What Makes a University Public?” In this talk, they attempted to redefine “public education” to effectively argue that the kinds of private financial investments that circulate through the newly expanded Real Estate Office do not constitute privatization. These investments—alternately called “Public-Private Partnerships”—currently include privately funded construction projects such as the Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, a brand new UC campus that will focus on lucrative STEM and Silicon Valley research; the Gill Tract, a piece of land the UC is trying to lease to outside contractors for $900,000/year for six acre plots; Berkeley student housing, including the privately funded Bowles Hall, several other new large-scale dormitories, and real estate developments at UC Village, to name only a few. 

Many students, faculty, workers, and community members are challenging the administration’s superficial rhetoric that such construction on public land does not constitute privatization, citing the lack of oversight for these projects, the ways that private money shifts research possibilities and priorities, and the rising tuition costs which are used to secure the Real Estate Office’s low interest construction loans, called “bonds.” Further, many believe the exorbitant costs for these expensive construction investments will ultimately be deferred to students, as has been the practice in the past, and the public, should the University go bankrupt. Dirks even admitted that this new development comes at the expense of deferred maintenance, as much of the Berkeley campus is in desperate need of basic upkeep.

The egregious forum was protested by multiple allies, where critics seemed to far outnumber supporters and even neutral attendees at the event. Unionists came to ask questions about poverty-level wages and job insecurity amid Berkeley’s contracting out of non-unionized labor. A Teamsters 2010 flyer read “Low Wages Do Not Serve the Public Good.” Also present were various students working on anti-privatization efforts, some of whom distributed sample audience questions for administrators about the UC’s commitment to public education. One question read, “Many of the UC Regents are heavily involved in the financial and real estate sectors. How should the UC Regents balance their private interests with the public’s interest?...What do we, as a public institution, owe to the public of Richmond?”

Perhaps the most significant presence at the Forum was a group of Black student organizers who are fighting to reverse Prof. Carolyn Finney’s arbitrary and unexplained denial of tenure. Finney, the only Black Professor in the Environmental Sciences Policy and Management department, researches racial exclusion in the environmental movement. Hers is an especially crucial voice at a time when the UC is trying to break ground in Richmond to construct a new, privately funded campus atop an EPA “superfund” designated toxic waste site in a largely black and brown working class community. Finney’s much acclaimed work represents an especially critical perspective during this phase of Richmond’s development in an environmentally sensitive area. Concerningly, one of the campus functions the Real Estate Office has taken over in its transition is Berkeley’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, which enforces compliance with environmental regulations, water safety, and construction permitting. Whether the EH&S Office will retain its autonomy and commitment to environmental justice or become a permit mill for new construction remains to be seen. Unless the University reverses the decision to deny Prof. Finney’s tenure, a decision within Chancellor Dirks’ power, this battle to ensure environmental justice will need to be waged with one fewer respected local researcher and community ally. 

Also prominent was the Respect Richmond Coalition, a student group pushing the Chancellor to sign a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure that Richmond residents are not harmed by and actually benefit from the new UC campus construction. Many Richmond community members are currently struggling to stay in their homes as land speculation and rent rises and contributes to gentrification, and they are fighting to ensure that the new campus provides jobs and educational opportunities for local residents. Six student members of this group are now facing Student Conduct Charges for staging a peaceful sit-in outside the Chancellor’s office last week to push Dirks to sign the Richmond Agreement, an attempt to silence student concerns about the direction of the Richmond Bay development project. At the Berkeley Forum, a dozen Respect Richmond Coalition members assembled in a line at the front of the stage, mouths taped shut, holding signs that read “You Can’t Arrest Our Voices” and “Drop the Student Conduct Charges.”

Amid these groups was Fossil Free Cal, whose members distributed pamphlets calling on the UC to divest itself from fossil fuel assets. This group, comprised of students and alums, connected the University’s financial interest in toxic commodities to its profiting off of environmental injustice. “Talk is cheap,” read Fossil Free Cal’s flyer, “A public university that fails to ACT in the public interest sells its mission short.”

For those of us committed to a public UC Berkeley, this is an exciting moment, where there is potential to link many ongoing campus struggles to fight structural racism, privatization and gentrification, environmental degradation, and anti-labor measures. The forum was eventually shut down when the Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost refused to answer audience questions about workers’ unlivable wages, when Finney’s tenure denial will be reversed and what it was denied in the first place, and why UC administrators are so actively undermining the UC’s public education mission. 

I write this update both to keep interested readers and coalition partners—wherever you may be—in the loop and also to urge people to continue organizing on these issues in whatever spaces you can and that feel right. This is a really significant time for our University, and it’s future as a public institution committed to racial and economic equality is truly on the line. 

1 comment:

  1. Hysterical articles such as this one are why very few people in the real world take college students seriously...