Friday, September 21, 2012

On School Privatization: Daily Life

     I've been thinking about the current crisis and privatization of the University of California system.  We've gotten a lot of useful analysis on the process from a number of significant figures, from Christopher Newfield to Bob Meister and Wendy Brown, and others.  I don't think that I can contribute a lot more to that intellectual project, either from the reformist or from the radical or revolutionary positions.  What I might be able to contribute is some thoughts on the everyday aspects of the process, the often unperceived changes that have occurred through the process, the things that the university administration has sought to paper over with lies, propaganda, and deception.  A curious passage in the second two last chapter of the first volume of Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life strikes me as a useful entrance into this conversation.  "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside" is curiously impressionist chapter, exploring the structure of the church, along with questions of religion, community, and their expression in day to day life.  Within that context, Lefebvre makes a curious but useful comment about the duplicity contained in the ideological structure of the church.

      "The mystifying skill of this 'movement' can be measured by the fact that it has been able to disguise itself as a rigid dogmatism.  In fact it is exactly the opposite (like a crafty child who slides along while insisting he is sitting still).  and this disguise is a cover for its press-gang tactics.  Anyone who criticizes 'Catholic dogmatism' in the name of free-thinking and independent individuality is being ridiculously naive." (Lefebvre  225)

     This contradiction, between the static image of the institution and the dynamic reality of its behavior is a useful framework to understand the university within the context of the financial crisis.  I've reached a point of assuming that any time I'm told that a certain action by the university has a long precedence the reality is the opposite, that its a new policy.  A good example of this is the policies around funding PhD's in English and Comparative Literature.  When I first entered in to our program, we had grad students in their tenth year still receiving teaching funding.  By my third or fourth year, we were being told something significantly different, receiving instructions that we needed to finish quickly, because of the 18 quarter policy and Doc 2 status.  Instead of admitting that policy had changed due to financial considerations, we were told that these were policies that had always been in place.  They refused to admit the reality of the shifts in their policy.  We've seen the same behavior on the part of housing, with less financial reasoning, as I pointed out in an earlier posting.  This left all of us as graduate students in the lurch, but it particularly hit those students who had structured their education on the ability to receive that additional funding, an issue that the departments and schools largely left unaddressed.

     The same process has been evident in the funding structures of the School of Humanities.  Last year, a document was released under the title, Needs Attention.  Within that document, the school divided the school between healthy departments and those who were not living up to expectations.  Ironically, those departments labelled 'Needs Attention' were not to be given attention, but lose any ability to replace faculty or receive additional funding.  It was immediately apparent that the criteria that the school used these decisions, primarily student to faculty ratios, problematic in itself, was inconsistently applied.  Traditional departments such as History were given a pass despite the fact that they fell below the vaguely defined criteria because of their status as just that, traditional, while other departments such as East Asian Studies was labeled  a 'Needs Attention' department, despite the fact that they met and exceeded all criteria set up by the document.  In effect, the document became a way of attacking interdisciplinary and non-traditional programs, particularly ethnic studies, but also critical theory, in order to transform Irvine into a more traditional humanities program.

      In that context, a small group of graduate and undergraduate students, primarily involved in Comparative Literature attempted to interpret the data contained in the document.  It quickly became clear that the information contained in the memo itself didn't allow an analysis of the metrics used to create the data.  Those students began a fairly long and arduous process of attempting to get the broader context of that data, talking to student representatives, professors, and administrators, and even going to the office of public records.  In each of these cases, the people involved either were themselves excluded from the information or refused to give the students the spreadsheets that made these decisions.  One of the students even had the police called on him for simply visiting the department of public records in the administration building.  Once again, the structures of the university systemically erased the opportunity to understand the transformations it was considering enacting, leaving those who used the institution with no real way of understanding the logic behind a set of draconian cuts, or the means to challenge those cuts on the terms that were set up by those enacting the cuts.

     All forms of activism on the campus have been met by a line of armed police officers, whether in the form of informal peaceful pickets or rallies.  Students have been repeatedly detained for chalking.  Throughout these practices, the university and its police force have simply denied the existence of the rights held by protestors, obfuscating them, and setting up a forest of regulations, regulations that often conflict with the rights of protest.  We are currently facing such an issue with our administration and labor relations right now, as they attempt to limit interactions with students in public spaces.  However, it's an issue that I'll discuss in a later posting.   These are only a couple examples to draw out the way the university is enacting austerity in the university.  It's important to note that despite the fact that departments such as History are receiving glowing bureaucratic reports, the students are in the same precarious position as the students in the departments that 'need attention.'  We should avoid the game of divide an conquer that the administration is clearly trying to introduce.  The larger point is that austerity is being enabled through this politics of erasure, the transformation of new policies into old policies and the mystification of the quickly transforming university, a university that is only a public university in name only

1 comment:

  1. A valuable intervention and a great opening salvo for the new school year. Thank you, Robert, for this.