Posted by rflacks on:
Last week, I was particularly proud to be part of the UCSB community. On Wednesday the 14th, hundreds of students, faculty and staff participated in an 8 hour teach in on the financial crisis. The turnout itself made me proud, and so did the fact (pretty unprecedented in my 40 years here) that the event was organized with the active work of faculty, undergraduates, graduate students and the labor unions representing various sectors of the staff. That kind of cooperation is hard to achieve.
The event itself was rich with challenging ideas and disturbing claims. Speakers were invited who had some expert knowledge and/or leadership role on a state level; these were joined by a number of eloquent student speakers in a series of panels and breakout sessions.
Those attending shared a sense of fear and anger about the crisis in California and at the university. The crisis is not simply due to the great recession. The state of the national economy has greatly exacerbated the state's budgetary disaster, but that disaster has even more disturbing roots. And higher education disaster is even greater. Consider, as a way of illustrating this, that since 2002, state spending on prisons has increased by more than 85%, while spending on higher education has been cut by 20%.
The California fiscal crisis is a consequence of a long series of ballot initiatives that, on the one hand, have restricted the ability of state and local government to raise revenues for basic services, while at the same time locking in large chunks of the state budget for particular interests. The state legislature must achieve a 2/3 vote to approve a budget and to increase taxes; similar super majorities are required in localities to approve new taxes. A minority of the legislature and the public controls the financing of the public sector. And that Republican minority has been united to oppose any tax increases; Republican politicians who question that dogma are typically targeted for defeat.
At the same time, political competence at the state level has been decimated by term limits for legislators and the governor, and by a remarkably feckless Democratic Party legislative leadership. Those running the Democrats in Sacramento are fine human beings, but appear to have no will for bold imitative and no strategy for progressive reform. They seem persuaded that the ‘public' will not tolerate tax increases. Meanwhile, Gov Schwarzenegger has done a magnificent job of wasting all the political capital he initially had, backing a variety of failed schemes that would have done little to solve the fiscal crisis but much to further enrich the rich. The latest of these is the brilliant proposal by a commission Arnold appointed headed by Gerald Parsky, that would flatten the state income tax ( and provide huge tax breaks for millionaires) coupled to a new state consumption tax that would increase taxes for low and middle income people. It is truly alarming that a bunch of wealthy guys appointed to come up with proposals aimed at resolving the fiscal crisis can think of nothing other than ways to get themselves and their friends even richer.
Parsky was recently a UC regent, and some of those wealthy friends are still on the board, especially Richard Blum (husband of Diane Feinstein) who is an embodiment of the burden ordinary citizens have to carry when billionaires assume a role in public decision making. Mr. Blum was the prime mover in appointing Mark Yudof to the UC presidency. Pres. Yudof gives every appearance of being quite willing to run the university in accordance with the fiscal stringencies expected by the wealthy and the Republicans. He takes for granted that the ‘public' doesn't want to pay for ‘education' and so the university must both cut back and find non-public ways of financing itself. Last week, the UCSB faculty legislature passed a resolution censuring Yudof; the notorious interview he gave to the NY Times was severely criticized in a letter signed by all the faculty senate chairs in the UC system. Yudof said in that interview that people below him in the hierarchy don't listen to him. The UCSB teach in was suffused with a sense that quite the reverse was true.
The leadership vacuum is scary. All my political life I've assumed that the power elite included some people who were actually interested in the health of the system rather than simply their own aggrandizement. Indeed, the massive investment in the University of California in the postwar period was prime evidence of this. Gov Pat Brown and Pres. Clark Kerr thought in those days they could count on financial and political support from the corporate sector since the benefits to the California economy from having a world class public university system were so evident. Pat Brown's golden era was a time when state government and private corporations collaborated to develop the state's infrastructure and that meant a flourishing public sector. The public be damned seems now to be the dominant corporate principle.
If there's any good news, it's the stirrings beginning at the University. Staff unions and many faculty staged a walkout on September 24. The UCSB teach-in was one of several similar events around the state. Yesterday, a major initiative was announced in a press release coming from Berkeley:
"As part of a campaign to restore California's support
of the country's premiere public university system, a
coalition of student and faculty has organized a
historic public discussion, entitled "The Crisis Of The
Public University", to be held Monday, October 26 at
4pm in Pauley Ballroom on the Berkeley campus.
Topping the agenda are two proposals to spur
re-investment in public higher education: an oil
severance tax bill authored by State Assembly majority leader Alberto Torrico that will be a structured benefit for higher education (AB 656), and "The California Democracy Act," a one-sentence 2010 ballot initiative, authored by Berkeley Linguistics professor George
Lakoff, that would return state budget decisions to
simple majority rule.
The unprecedented forum -- which will be free and open
to the public -- will feature Torrico and Lakoff; State
Assembly member Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley); Phil Ting,
San Francisco City Assessor-Recorder; City and Regional
Planning professor Ananya Roy; Stan Glantz, UCSF
Professor of Medicine; Jayna Brown, UC Riverside
Professor of Ethnic Studies; and Ariel Boone,
Associated Students of the University of California
"Never before have students, faculty, and legislators
come together to propose solutions for budget reform.
Never before have stakes been higher, with some pundits
declaring California 'a failed state'. Draconian cuts
to higher education are undermining the University of
California's standing as the world's leading public
university and threatening to close off access to
working and middle class students," says Richard
Walker, Director of the Center for California Studies
and a member of SAVE the University, a faculty group
sponsoring this event.
The October 26 forum comes on the heels of a UC
systemwide walkout on September 24 that saw 5000
protestors fill UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza. Robby
Cohen, the biographer of Mario Savio, compared that
rally to the days of the Free Speech Movement (The
Daily Californian, October 6, 2009). Since the walkout,
the Solidarity Alliance -- a student, faculty, and
staff union coalition that organized the rally -- has
been organizing toward a set of protests of the 32% fee
hike currently on the UC Regents' agenda.
Discussion at the October 26 forum will include, in
addition to Torrico's oil-severance tax and Lakoff's
California Democracy Act, San Francisco Assessor Ting's
proposals to repeal parts of Proposition 13; UC budget
expert Stan Glantz's analysis of UC financial
management; and student and faculty assessments of the
impact of higher UC fees on Californians.
The October 26 event, expected to draw 1000 people,
will kick off a week campus events on the state and
university budget crisis. At a previous "teach-in" on
September 23, organizers had to turn away 500 students
eager to hear what they could do to fight the cuts to
their campus. The forum is sponsored by SAVE the
University, CalSERVE Coalition, Bridges Multicultural
Resource Center, Solidarity Alliance, Berkeley Faculty
Association, and the Townsend Center for the
"This event will put UC Berkeley at the center of an
emerging grassroots movement to defend public education
from top to bottom," says Isaac Miller, CalSERVE
organizer and a student leader against the budget cuts.
"When world-renowned professors stand together with
kindergarten teachers, UC students with Richmond School
district students, anything is possible. We can make
our public education system a model to the world again.
But for that to happen, the state's budgeting process
needs to change, and fast."
There are two powerful policy ideas mentioned above: an oil severance tax (we are the only oil producing state that doesn't tax oil as it comes from the ground) that would be earmarked for higher education funding (as Texas does with its oil revenues).
The Lakoff initiative (which the famed linguist discussed at length at the UCSB teach-in) would end minority control of the state budget. The initiative is very simple. Here's the whole text: "All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote." A serious campaign to put this on the ballot is now underway. You can find out all about it at: http://www.camajorityrule.com/
If we can't expect initiative at the top, we can take it at the grassroots.