Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Not Just a Bad Apple: #FireKatehi was a struggle over the nature of the university

On August 8, 2016, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, the infamous pepper spray chancellor, stepped down from her position as chancellor after many months of controversy. The media ended up portraying her fall from grace as the result of a clash between her and UC President Janet Napolitano, months of investigative leave looking into allegations of misuse of funds, nepotism, and violations of ethical codes of conduct(1). What seemed to be the final nail in the coffin was the revelation that Katehi had hired a private firm to bury search results about the university that brought up mention of the Nov 18, 2011 pepper spray event which sparked international outrage. This contract was for at least $175,000 and most controversially didn’t just focus on the university’s reputation but also on Katehi’s personal image(2). Saturated in scandal coverage and the spectacle of the celebrity boxing match that was the back and forth between Katehi and Napolitano what the media and the public lost sight of was that the resignation, the investigation, all of it, was the product of brave student activists who held a thirty-six day long occupation outside Katehi’s office on the fifth floor of Mrak Hall in the face of threats from the administration(3). Their sacrifice turned what could have just been just another spat of bad press for the campus into a sustained movement that kept public pressure on the issue, making sure it didn’t get lost in the news cycle. But the most important thing that the media lost sight of was that the occupiers didn’t see Katehi in isolation, and they viewed her resignation as a first step in creating structural changes in the UC.

The #FireKatehi Occupation

It all started when the Sacramento Bee reported that Chancellor Katehi took a $70k/year paid position on the board of DeVry(4), a for-profit university facing federal investigation and litigation for predatory practices and fraud because of allegations that the University was fudging job placement numbers in order to get people to enroll. Further reporting by the Bee and the Davis Enterprise revealed that Katehi also previously taken positions on the boards of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia and the text book company Wiley and Sons. King Abdul Aziz University was condemned by the international academic community after it came to light that they were buying academic publications and ranking. The once unknown university suddenly become top ranked internationally by offering high profile professors tens of thousands of dollars to co-credit the university with all of their research. People knew something was wrong when an obscure university that only had a math department for 2 years was suddenly ranked #7 in math internationally - above M.I.T.(5). The Chancellor also took a paid position on the board of Wiley and Sons a textbook publisher. This conflict of interest brought in about $420,000 from 2012-2014 in salary and stock for Katehi(6), who already made over $400,000 per year as Chancellor, plus free housing and other benefits.

On Friday March 11th, 2016 a coalition of undergraduate students, graduate student workers from UAW 2865, and community members held a rally to “Fire Katehi” and marched to her office in Mrak Hall. The Chancellor was allegedly on a “leadership retreat” (irony it seems has a sense of humor) but the students held a sit-in demanding to see the Chancellor to demand she resign or be fired. The Chancellor refused to meet with the protesters after the retreat was over so the sit-in became an overnight occupation. The protesters were told by administrators that the Chancellor refused to meet with them at the Mrak Hall occupation, but the occupiers refused to back down and the occupation continued, despite threats and an ultimatum given on the third night of the occupation that anyone who continued to stay would face charges with Student Judicial Affairs and potentially be suspended or expelled(30).

Katehi and the UC Davis administration tried to paint the occupiers as a handful of misinformed complainers, but before the occupation even began two California Assemblymembers had called for Katehi's resignation(7) and others later joined their call. Furthermore there was an outpouring of support(8) from on-campus groups, from the Davis Faculty Association, campus unions, undergraduate student government leaders, and student organizations, as well as off-campus groups from the larger community and some even further away, such as the Portland State University Student Union which sees their struggle against an unresponsive administration connected with the struggle of the occupiers.

Neoliberalization of the University of California

This latest incarnation of the student movement needs to be understood as a response to the neoliberalization of the university - best understood through the twin forces of privatization and corporatization.

The most visible and most controversial change that has been happening at the UC has been the skyrocketing rise of tuition. The California Master Plan set out to make higher education free for all California residents, however the cost of tuition in California was the fasting growing in the country from 2008-2011(34). Tuition has nearly tripled from 2003 to 2011(35) as shown in Figure 1 below. If tuition had risen at the pace of inflation since 1965 it would have cost $2000 in 2011, instead it cost around $11,000 that year.

Figure 1: UC tuition costs (36)

By shifting the cost of tuition to the individual, and their family, this once public good has now become an individual’s responsibility to pay for and access. Combined with the end of affirmative action in acceptance procedures, we see that the state of California has shifted from investing in higher education for Black and Latino communities in particular, and instead the money that has been taken from higher education has been shifted to mass incarceration, predominantly of Blacks and Latinxs.

The UC administration tells us that the reason they have to raise tuition is because the state has defunded higher education. While it is true that there has been a decrease in state funding, Reclaim UC(37) points out that this perpetual budget "crisis" isn't really a crisis, and that there should be no deficit because the rise in tuition brings in far more money than the amount that the state withdrew, so this "crisis" is just a rhetorical strategy used to justify the restructuring of the university and to shift blame away from administration.

Figure 2 Logo of the University of California (left); and its short lived no logo

The restructuring of the UC refers to a major shift in the composition and practices of the university.The shift to a more corporate model can be seen by the massive grown in administration, the skyrocketing pay of executives, the aforementioned rising costs of tuition, construction projects, increasing class size, outsourcing of labor, and privatization of services. Education and research are no longer the priorities of the university, instead like one would guess from a corporate model, branding is the most important element of the new UC. We see this in the UC’s failed attempt at unveiling a new logo (Figure 2 right). The old logo (Figure 2 left), has a book in the center and the slogan “let there be light” aside from its biblical connotations, also hints to enlightenment. The other logo looks corporate, it could be anything from a digital media service to an arms manufacturer, the logo has no aesthetic other than “corporate”. While this logo flopped after it was announced and critics made fun of it, saying it resembled a toilet bowl, or a computer loading screen, as if the UC is slow to boot, the real heart of the problem was that this sleek new colorful minimalist logo betrayed what everyone wants to believe the UC is, an institution primarily concerned with the production and dissemination of knowledge.

Administrative growth has vastly outpaced the growth of employees. Across the UC from 1991 to 2012 the number of full time employees increased by 51%, while the number of full time administrators grew 252% during that same period. Figure 3 (9) shows a breakdown of administrative growth per campus. Furthermore at Davis things looked even worse, with administration more than quadrupling while during the same time period the number of full time instructional, research, and service staff decreased 4.5%(38).

Figure 3 Administrative growth at the UC, 1993-2013 (9)

Probably the most ridiculous example of the top heavy bureaucracy of this corporate model is that in 1997 there was 6,809 faculty and 3,476 senior management across the UC, and in 2011 there was 8,669 faculty and 8,821 senior management across the UC(10). Under this corporate model the top public university in the country now has more senior managers than faculty members!

Figure 3: Administrative Growth vs Faculty growth at the UC, 1997-2012 (10)

The problem isn’t just that the UC has become numerically top heavy, it is that a portion of these administrators are seeing their pay skyrocket.In the three years from 2008 to 2011, the number of individuals receiving more than $200,000 in base pay grew by 44 percent. Employees grossing more than $200,000, while only 2.6 percent of the total workforce, now account for 13.8 percent of 10+ billion in payroll payments. This excessive executive compensation cost the University nearly $1.5 billion in 2011. If just the top 225 administrators in 2011 gave up their extra compensation and stuck to their salaries, averaging at $335,500, it would save roughly 20 million dollars.(source AFSCME 3299 -I lost the link to the source I am currently looking for it)

In 2014 the UC Regents voted to give the lowest paid Chancellors pay raises up to 20%, saying that it was an “injustice” they weren’t paid more(12). This was just a year or so after the UC tried to unilaterally cut the pay of its service workers in AFSCME 3299, the vast majority of whom qualify for public assistance(13).

Construction, privatization of services, and increasing class size all go hand in hand under this corporate model. Enrolling more students, as per Chancellor Katehi’s “2020 initiative”(14) and undertaking numerous construction projects gives the impression of success because the campus is growing. The privatization of services such as housing allows the administration to wipe its hands clean of any responsibility to, for example, figure out where to put the 5,000 new undergraduate students they plan to enroll by 2020 with insufficient plans for housing in a city that has a vacancy rate that is below 3% and often dips down below 1%(15). The demolition of affordable family housing and the plan to replace it with greenwashed lifestyle housing allows the UC to print glossy brochures of pretty buildings that have all sorts of buzzwords and promise to sell a lifestyle that, let’s face it, in this economy a much smaller percentage of students will have after they graduate.In fiscal years 2011-2013 there were around 200 construction projects underway at the UC each year, valued between $6-7 billion total each year(16).

Here at UC Davis a brand new welcome center was built, for the price of $2.8 million(17).The administration says that tuition money wasn’t used but rather short term loan interest. But the question that needs asking is why was this welcome center prioritized over, literally anything else? Why did they spend $456,000 buying and installing a giant touch screen wall(17)? They can say that they didn’t spend tuition money on this, but why wasn’t this money put toward lowering tuition costs?

Not everyone is so fond of these new construction projects(18). The only two affordable family housing areas on campus were slated for demolition, and after Orchard Park was vacated the residents of Solano Park pushed back. The administration held numerous meetings and tried to appease the crowd by saying that these new units would be under market value and that there would be more of them available than there are currently at the Parks. However, the residents, who are primarily graduate students who TA to pay rent, pointed out that many of these units cost more than our entire TA salary. In meetings between residents and administrators and developers that I attended,when asked how they are expected to pay for housing that costs more than our salary the response given was to “take out loans”. The truth is that student families were just not going to be given space on campus, and that they would be pushed out for undergrads from wealthier backgrounds who would pay for this sleek new housing.

Underneath the veneer of this finely crafted image is the reality of public education in decline. A 2010 report on the competitiveness of the UC Graduate programs that came out of the Office of the President announced that for the first time in the history of the UC more than half of accepted graduate students choose to go to another university(19). The main reasons were the low pay (insufficient funding) and high cost of living. The “pay gap” (including cost of living adjustments) for the top ten competitor schools was $5,000/year, which is between ⅓ and ¼ of the pay that graduate students receive as Teaching Assistants, Instructors, or Research Assistants.

The quality of undergraduate instruction is also on the decline. Grad students, the people who teach the discussion sections and labs and grade the papers, have been decreasing in proportion to undergrads. Graduate enrollment “from 1970-2000 grew at less than 1/10 the rate of undergraduate enrollment. In relation to their counterparts at comparable schools, graduate enrollees at the UCs now constitute a significantly smaller percentage of total enrollees.”(20) Larger undergrad to grad student ratios mean less one on one time and less feedback on assignments.

A lack of funding for graduate students results in failed experiments like the 400 person UCSB literature class with no sections. Or more ominously, on some campuses 100+ person classes with no or few discussion sections simply become the norm. During contract negotiations between the union representing Teaching Assistants and UC management, one undergrad at UC Berkeley quipped that he thought the new stadium being built was a classroom at first.

The corporate model means not just squeezing more tuition dollars out of undergraduates, but also squeezing more work out of those who make the university run. Larger class sizes are like an old fashioned speed-up, getting the same or even fewer workers to produce more. The administration has also been under a lot of heat for outsourcing jobs to subcontractors, who pay significantly less and usually without job security and benefits(21). The union representing service workers has been fighting this, and got the UC to guarantee a minimum wage to all workers even subcontracted workers. The catch was that this new rate only applies to full time workers, which only incentivizes increased precariousness on the part of these workers(22).

Financialization - the blood money at the heart of the neoliberal university

As if the above wasn’t bad enough, this discussion wouldn’t be complete without discussing the symbiotic relationship between the neoliberal university and the forces of capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, and imperialism. The corporate university is complacent, or even enthusiastic, about austerity; as it means more autonomy from the state and the increased ability to do whatever it wants with its money, instead of prioritizing education and research, such as wasting it on useless construction projects like a welcome center with a giant touchscreen wall, or executive pay and perks.

One method of trying to generate revenue that doesn’t hold the administration accountable to students, campus workers, or the public is by taking out temporary loans from Wall Street banks, and often swapping these loans for other loans, in a risky “interest rate swapping” venture, which has actually cost more money than it has brought it. A study from UC Berkeley titled “Swapping Our Future” explains,
UC management has more than doubled the university’s debt burden from $6.9 billion in May 2007 to $14.3 billion at the end of 2011. Rather than contributing to UC’s core mission, funds have been directed toward more profitable UC enterprises like medical centers and attracting out-of-state students. Medical center profits have increased steadily to $900 million annually last year… UC is currently losing about three-quarters of a million dollars each month on interest rate swaps associated with debt issued for two of its medical centers. Since 2003, UC’s swap agreements have cost the university nearly $57 million and could cost the university another $200 million. (23)

The UC can only take out these low interest loans by showing its lenders that it can generate revenue to back up these loans, i.e. the administration goes to Wall Street and begs for money and in exchange it has to prove that it can raise tuition whenever it wants. So if these loans are actually losing the UC money then what we effectively have is the plundering of the university guaranteed by the militarization of the campuses, because if administration can’t secure tuition hikes by stopping student protest, it will get its credit rating lowered and access to low interest loans cut off.

Another method of generating revenue that is less risky is long term investment of the UC endowment. UC endowment money has been invested in fossil fuel companies, private prisons, the occupation of Palestine, and corporate banks, among others.

Fossil Fuel companies are major contributors to climate change, which the effects of disproportionately affect people of color, both in the US, for example higher asthma rates among urban POC, and POC in the global South by creating environmental refugees from Climate Change caused environmental disasters. And as Naomi Klein points out in “This Changes Everything” it is Native/Indigenous people who are having their land plundered and poisoned and are in the risk zone for spills from drilling or having pipelines run through their land. Lastly, Fossil Fuel companies monetarily backed a successful vote no campaign on a gas tax to raise education funds in California, and they sponsor bullshit science from think tanks to argue that climate change isn’t real, both of which very directly go against the interests of the university.

UC money has been invested in companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine and human rights abuses there. Companies like Violia which runs segregated bus lines in the Occupied West Bank support the apartheid regime. G4S provides the technology for many of the notorious checkpoints and helps run Israeli prisons where Palestinians are often held without trial and tortured, and where children are among those imprisoned. Lastly UC money has gone to helping caterpillar make more bulldozers, which it sells to Israel for illegally bulldozing Palestinian homes to make way for settlements.

Recall that when the state of California started to defund the UC system, and higher education in general, that money went to prisons instead. One would think that the UC would not want to support an industry it is competing with for funding, but endowment money has gone into private prisons, which spend lots of money lobbying for tough on crime bills which increase the prison population which is massively disproportionately Black and Brown in California and across the country.

Endowment money has also gone into corporate banks, such as Wells Fargo, which is a major investor in private prisons, so even after the UC was pressured by the Afrikan Black Coalition this year to divest from private prisons it still indirectly invests in them.Furthermore one of our UC Regents is Monica Lozano, who sits on the board of Bank of America, a notorious bank for subprime mortgages which were twice as likely to be given to Black people, especially after it bought Countrywide, which made a killing off of subprime mortgages, two-thirds of which went to Latinos in California.

So while the short term investments are effectively a plundering of the UC by Wall Street, the long term investments are the plundering of communities of color by the UC and its corporate allies.

UCPD - holding it all together

The violence off campus that the UC is investing in is held together through violence on campus. Neoliberalization of the UC hasn’t gone unchallenged, and neither has its investment practices. Administrative power is at the heart of this corporate model, and it is the UC police who have the front line task of holding onto that power. We have seen again and again how the UC uses repressive measures to crush any opposition. Davis is now most famously known as the pepper spray university, but the use of police brutality and legal repression against non-violent protesters isn’t isolated to that day or even that campus.

Just nine days before the pepper spraying at Davis there was another infamous act of police brutality at UC Berkeley. Student protesters locked arms and formed a circle around Occupy tents that they had put up on the quad, and UCPD was caught on video slamming their batons into the ribs of protesters(24). During the 2009-10 student opposition to tuition hikes police shot pepper balls at protesters on a march, and there was reported use of a taser(25). Also during that time period Chancellor Katehi sent riot cops into Mrak Hall to disrupt an occupation; fifty-two people were arrested and charged(26). During this time a UCPD officer was also caught on video at UCSF during a UC Regents meeting drawing his gun on peaceful student protesters twice(27). At first the University denied it, but video evidence proved them wrong. And let’s not forget the Davis Dozen, or Banker’s dozen, the eleven students and one professor who faces charges of eleven years in prison and a million dollars in “damages” for sitting in front of a US Bank on campus everyday, blocking the door, in protest of the privatization and the comfy relationship between the university and corporate banks(28).

UC Davis has also developed its own soft-policing apparatus where they get mid-level administrators to observe and spy on student protesters(29). Especially after the fallout from the 2011 pepper spraying the UC has been reliant upon these more subtle measures to try to break student power. Katehi knows that another picture of UCPD brutality against student dissidents could cost her her job, so they have instead tried to demobilize students by sending in administrators to “listen” and encourage students to get involved with university committees, which have no real power and are generally used to demoblize and stall. However, we have seen that when that tactic fails the administration has no problem making threats, as they have to the #FireKatehi occupiers, who have been threatened with Student Judicial Affairs charges of possible suspension or expulsion(30). For those dependent upon financial aid or upon the university for employment these threats are very real. As a graduate student whose entire income comes from TAing, if I were suspended I wouldn’t be able to pay rent, and therefore wouldn’t be able to house or feed my son. This violence is less interpersonal and less flashy than batons or pepper spray, but can be even worse in its effects.

Finally, the UC has been working to restrict free speech altogether around issues that are proving to be a flashpoint for student activism, mainly the Palestinian solidarity movement, but we will see what they target next if they are successful with this. The Regents also adopted a new policy against intolerance in 2016 which restricts speech by falsely linking anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism(31).

Not Just a Bad Apple - Two Visions of the University

Protests and occupations against tuition hikes, strikes, pushes for divestment, calls for disarming or disbanding the UCPD, and the demand that a Chancellor be fired are not disparate actions, but rather manifestations of struggles across the many facets of the corporate model of the university. The administrative class has found allies with Wall Street and is propped up by global systems of White Supremacy that plunder People of Color. It is no coincidence that in their letter of support of Chancellor Katehi that Provosts, Vice Chancellors, and Deans(32) referred to Katehi as a visionary, and that UC President Janet Napolitano said that Katehi’s wrong doings don’t outweigh her usefulness as a fundraiser(33). The administrative class sees in Katehi someone who fully understands the direction of the university, someone who has been able to execute the transition to the corporate model, and they commend her for it. Katehi’s actions are not unique to her alone, rather she was just the one who got caught in the spotlight. In other words, this wasn’t a case of corruption, as some of Katehi’s opponents liked to frame it, because corruption implies an individual skirting the rules of a system that is designed to be fair for their own gain. The neoliberal university exists to enrich the executive class at the expense of students and workers, of teaching and research, much like how a pharmaceutical corporation’s mission to sell treatments is secondary to its primary mission of making its executives and shareholders richer - if the former mission undermines the latter, it isn’t pursued. Under this framework, if Katehi is guilty of anything it is blatant or excessive neoliberalism. The corporate culture of UC administration encouraged her to take unethical paid and unpaid board positions on predatory anti-student anti-academic institutions. Furthermore the people who are supposed to hold her accountable are just as bad, if not worse. For example, as already mentioned, one regent Monica Lozano also sits on the board of Bank of America. UC Regent Richard Blum, Diane Feinstein’s husband, own Blum capital which has held the largest shares of stock in two different for profit private educational institutions. UC President Janet Napolitano’s appointment lacked transparency and input from even the academic senate. The secret backroom agreements that led to her appointment sparked protests across the entire UC, but she is still here despite the obviously rejection of her by students and campus workers.

This is why a change in the face of the university won’t be enough. UC students have a history of fighting for a different vision of what they think the university should be and they will continue to do so. We imagine a university primarily concerned with teaching and research, one that provides quality accessible education, one that is a model of social justice, not one that is invested in oppression. Katehi became a symbolic face of the nature of the corporate university, and students knew that smashing administrative power starts with deposing her, and then the real fight begins, to challenge the very structure of the university and the unchecked power of administration.

The #FireKatehi movement succeeded in deposing he chancellor, and they have two representatives on the hiring committee looking for a new chancellor., but whether or not the #FireKatehi movement succeeds in creating structural changes it will undoubtedly continue this discussion of neoliberalization of the UC, and it has shown that only students and workers will hold adminstration accountable and only a movement of students and campus workers can stop or reverse the trend of neoliberalization of the university.

 The fight against the administration will eventually bring students head to head with the Regents, again, and it will take nothing short of a multicampus coordinated campaign to break their power. Long term coordinated campaigns can be difficult on college campuses, as breaks and summers can often destroy momentum, and the revolving door of students makes it harder to keep institutional memory and maintain connections between networks of activists, but in my six years of graduate study in the UC I have seen the strengths of the student movement - its passion, its creativity, and its solidarity- overcome these obstacles.

Tl;dr? There is a chant that can be heard at every protest that reveals that students and campus workers understand that the problem isn’t just the particular issue making the headlines, in this case #FireKatehi, but rather they are engaged in a struggle for control over their education and their work, control over the very university itself. The chant goes like this, “Whose university? Our university!”

11 AFSCME 3299 (lost this link, currently looking for the original source)

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