Occupy UC

Today the Berkeley faculty will have a special meeting to consider several resolutions condemning the police behavior at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstration, and another resolution that says in part:

Therefore be it Resolved that the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate has lost confidence in the ability of Chancellor Birgeneau, EVC Breslauer and VC LeGrande to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.

This is going to be a complicated, awkward (not that that’s a fatal flaw) exercise that will probably not clarify much for anyone. In the first place, the “Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate” is not a representative body but a committee of the whole 2000-odd of us, and its meetings are rarely attended by more than 100. Obviously it meets in a dense cloud of selection bias that obscures its legitimacy, so its resolutions and actions don’t seem to be taken very seriously by the campus authorities, who can easily say, “well, that’s what several dozen malcontents think, end of story”. In the second place, the motion uses very strong language. Despite having signed the call for the meeting, mainly because I think this stuff desperately needs to be discussed, I’m not sure I’ve lost confidence precisely in the leadership’s ability to protect protesters from beating and chemical assault. Admittedly, it’s hard to reconcile the chancellor’s public words from two years ago on the occasion of excessive police force at the Wheeler Hall occupation

Any tactics to exercise crowd control on campus must provide a safe platform for expression of free speech and freedom of assembly and we expect that, as a result of this review, modifications will be made. We must strive to ensure that there is no possibility in the future of the alleged actions of police brutality and that our actions are guided by non-violence.

with what happened three weeks ago, but probably the latest quite broad outrage and criticism have got their attention and they will not make that mistake (whether of omission or commission doesn’t matter too much) again.

But that’s not the big mistake, outrageous as it was. Another reason the meeting and the resolution are somewhat off-target is the blurring of different issues in the protests themselves. At Cal, public action has been pretty specifically directed at the chancellor, president, and regents, demanding increased state funding for higher education and reducing student fees (as though any of them had money to give out). I regret this focus, because it looks self-serving and narrow; if tuition at Berkeley dropped to zero, (i) the students would still be facing terrible trouble because their state political machinery is broken, they will have trouble getting jobs and keeping them, and we have run out of tricks with which to pretend it isn’t necessary to pay for essential state services (like schools for their kids) (ii) the majority of the population not lucky enough to go to college at any price are already much worse off than they are. In any case, the chancellor and president have been vocal (though ineffectual – probably inevitably) advocates for restoring state funding for higher education, and while I don’t have a good sense of the President Yudof’s personality either way, I believe Birgeneau to be a decent person who genuinely believes in educational access for everyone, in social and economic mobility generally, and also in not breaking his students’ and faculty’s ribs or dragging them on the ground by the hair.

The Occupy Cal protests, however, are part of a larger movement directed at the unconscionable increase in US economic inequality over the last thirty years and a widespread perception that the 1% who have been scooping up everything in sight have not contributed social value to society in any way proportional to the loot they have been collecting. Income is supposed to reflect the value you create; Steve Jobs made a lot of people a lot better off in many ways, but what the financial sector’s big winners have done for us is, um, less clear. The big mistake is that campus (and university) leadership is a day late and a dollar short on the disintegration of the American economic and political systems.

Leadership is supposed to shape, direct, clarify, and empower a group’s values, and to represent those values to the larger environment (and to the group). In the end, what I don’t have confidence in is our current leadership’s ability to do is any of that on the larger issues. I brought this up with my public policy students in one course, mentioning that in 1986, Berkeley had divested itself of South African investments, manifesting and implementing (not just stating) an institutional position against apartheid. I asked if they wanted the president or chancellor to represent, in their name, that UC Berkeley is against endlessly increasing income inequality in America. I was surprised to learn that their support for this idea was tepid at best, mainly (I think) because they sense a slippery slope of public university officials taking positions on all sorts of things without a real mandate. And of course we have no machinery by which to unambiguously give such a mandate; it’s not even possible to email everyone on campus, the faculty senate is a noisy channel, and student government…well, the less said about its political efficacy the better.

As I rarely do, I think my students (at least this sample) are wrong. I fault Birgeneau for being both invisible to the troops except as a source of inept spam emails, and the author of managerial choices that are incomprehensible to me, dithering around the edges of the crises rather than doing consequential things. Why hasn’t he had a big meeting in the Greek Theatre of students and faculty to make some noise about the economic and political crisis in the state and nation, and put duties and tasks before us; if not us, who? Why hasn’t his discourse on police violence here been a real cry of rage that his instructions from 2009 were ignored, backed up with rolling heads and visits to the injured students? Why isn’t he out walking around during demonstrations, getting between the cops and student bodies and putting good quotes on TV news? There’s a lot of energy being released diffusely, and he should be the one directing it usefully. Afraid the regents will fire him? There are a lot worse things to lose than your job.

The crisis we’re enduring, like any crisis, is the occasion for a real leader to focus attention and break some habits and bonds of tradition, even at the cost of some collateral crockery. That’s not happening: instead (for example, my own hobbyhorse) of setting up a real quality assurance program that would reach every session of every course so we could show the public we’re going to overdeliver the learning the state has traditionally paid us to provide, he fired the Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning, rolled her functions into another administrator’s very large portfolio, and hired a consulting firm to cut administrative costs. Instead of bringing the intercollegiate athletics program to heel as though it reported to him, and stanching $12m a year of bleeding, he’s allowing us to be saddled with a half-billion dollar debt for an over-the-top stadium upgrade and a conditioning center/coaching office palace/booster party venue that will crush us financially.

I will probably vote for the resolution, even though it’s not exactly what I want to say and despite my discomfort making such a strong statement against someone whose heart is in the right place. But Birgeneau is way over his head in his job, served by inadequate lieutenants, or both. Some kind of wakeup call is in order, and this is the motion on the table.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.