Why did the pepper spray fly on the UC Davis campus last week?  A couple of bad cops with grudges?  A mismanaged campus security office? UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi going “Jean Quan” – – e.g. a leader overwhelmed by multiple constituencies and pushed into bad decision-making? An incompetent University administration?

Perhaps.  But before the verdict arrives, let me introduce one word: Cochabamba.

You may not know this city in Bolivia, but you might remember the “Cochabamba Water Wars.”  In the late 90s, as part of a package of loans, the  World Bank demanded that Bolivia privatize its water supply.  In a one-bidder auction, then-Bolivian president, Hugo Banzer, sold the rights to supply Bolivia’s water to an international cartel called Agua  del Tunari.  In a country where the most workers make about $100 a month, Agua del Tunari raised water rates 35% – – to about $20 a month.

Bolivians roared in protest.  In January 2000, Cochabamba entered into a state of open revolt: peasants streamed in from the countryside, workers in the city’s barrios teamed up with indignant middle-class residents, and young University anarchists joined in.  Faced with road blockades, a general strike, and insurrectionary-style violence, Banzer declared a state of emergency.   In the end, especially after television footage of police firing rifles into popular crowds, the protestors won.  Agua del Tunari’s contract was revoked.  And, Cochabamba workers and unions began teaming up with Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo.  Morales would, of course, win the Bolivian presidency in 2005.

The Cochabamba drama prefigures so much of the current Occupy movement: the people versus corporations; an ossified and decrepit political system closed to popular agency; self-directed mass action met by state violence; urban space rocked by the cross-currents of communalization and control.

Yet the one largely unspoken connection between Cochabamba and UC Davis lies in one word: privatization.  What connects pepper-sprayed UC Davis students with the popular movements boiling up from Latin America and elsewhere is the conflict over how the basic goods of the commons – – education, water, space – – are controlled, managed, and used.

For well over a decade, critics and analysts (from Derek Bok, to Walter Kirp, to Cary Nelson, and Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, to name a few) have been charting the ongoing privatization of U.S. public higher education.  And, while these writers have decried the commodification of knowledge, the corporatization of the university, and the proletarianization of academic labor – – who would have predicted that all of this would lead to our own Cochabamba – –  several dozen, mainly white, and probably middle-class college students being viciously assaulted by riot-geared campus police, a university in disorder, the beginnings of a new phase of Occupy?

Ironically, the transformation of university students into “consumers” is supposed to empower the new “customers” of higher education and remake the obsolete ivory tower into a flexible, user-friendly, efficient “deliverer” of quality education credentials.  However, for students, the “gales of creative destruction” unleashed by privatization typically work at cross-purposes.

On the one hand, as universities struggle to forge a “brand,” students are often treated as something akin to customers “lost in the supermarket” of higher education.  Campus visits for prospective students these days might include a tour of: big-screen t.v.’s in the dorm lounge, multi-million dollar fitness and recreation centers equipped with personal trainers and spinning classes, master chefs in the cafeteria, student centers redesigned to look and feel like upscale resort convention centers.  As Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt acerbically note in their Academic Keywords: “It all started in the food court.  Think of the cafeteria [now replaced by corporate franchises] as the Stonehenge relic for the university of the new millennium.”

“This is definitely driven by a competitive marketplace.  Campuses are trying to attract the best students, and amenities catch people’s attention,” a representative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators quipped in 2002 in the early stages of this process.  “The campus experience many older people remember is still there, but it’s been slicked up a bit.”

Marketing universities like this reduces universities to big-box stores and remakes students into viewers of shows like MTV’s Cribs – –  acquisitive machines set loose in “lands of desire” and  driven by the pleasures and pains of conspicuous commodity consumption.

On the other hand, privatization works to less salubrious ends.  As students consume high-end “campus experiences,” they also become the main financial pillar of University budgets.  As states withdraw their general fund support for public universities, universities depend more and more on student tuition dollars.  In 2009, across the nation, state annual general fund budget increases for public  higher education dropped to nearly 0%.  At the same time, tuition as a percent of public  higher ed’s total revenue rose to 40.3%.  (In 1985, that number stood at 23%).  The state is offloading its costs to students – – and in the process cross-subsidizing a boom in the student debt industry.

This privatization dynamic has reached a critical tipping-point in California.  As the 2011-12 academic year opened, the U. Cal and CSU systems were confronted with a combined $1.3 billion dollar cut, almost 20% of operating money from the state.  Another $200 million cut will probably kick-in this spring.  State budget-cutting has been followed by round of jaw-dropping tuition and fee hikes.  Over the summer, UC Regents approved a 17.6% tuition hike, driving the student price of UC enrollment to close to $13,000 per year.  As one analysis points out, UC tuition has gone up an astounding (inflation-adjusted) 392% over the past three decades, over a period when inflation-adjusted wages have remained relatively stagnant.  Similar tuition and fee hikes are being implemented within the CSU system.

California’s public universities, for the first time in the state’s history, have now passed the Mendoza Line of higher education funding: more than 50% of funding for public higher education now comes from student tuition.  The Water Wars of Cochabamba have now become the Tuition Wars of California.

In a most literal sense, the 99% rhetoric has achieved a new reality in California public higher education.  For instance, one  recent news story reported that: “Over the past 10 years, the proportion of middle-income students attending the University of California has declined at nearly twice the rate of California middle-income households, while the share of lower- and upper-income UC students has risen.”  Richer families can still afford the expense of rising tuition; for the moment, lower-income households can rely on federal subsidies (for instance, Pell grants).

The process of super-stratification in California’s public higher education is only just beginning.  As the state abandons middle and lower-income households, the UC system is looking elsewhere for students who can still pay out-of-pocket.  This past fall, UC Berkeley replaced 900 in-state students (a 20% drop from last year’s entering class) with 600 out-of-state students.  The reason: out-of-state students pay higher tuition rates – – almost $23,000 more – – and largely don’t rely on University financial aid.

Over the decades, through taxes and subsidies, Californians have been wildly successful in cultivating the commons of public higher education.  Now, that fruit of the  creative commons  is being hijacked and transformed into a revenue-generating “brand.”

But, how does all this relate to the pepper spray still floating over the UC Davis campus?  As Cynthia Ching, an Associate Professor at Davis’s School of Education, writes in  her “Open Letter to My Students and Colleagues“: “[W]ith few exceptions, the people running this campus up in Mrak Hall think of themselves as administrators, not as educators.  . . . [I]nstead, what we have are people who end up thinking of you as data points and dollar signs, rather than as whole human beings.”

This is what privatization does.  It relentlessly dissolves democratic governance into administration.  It translates all values into market values.  The ongoing privatization of public higher education tends to replace academic community with competing stakeholders and favors vertical, hierarchical (“command and control”) structures over more horizontal, collaborative relations.

From this perspective, students are bundles of desires (for better food, nicer amenities, more convenient scheduling) to be managed.  Faculty are more or less efficient “deliverers” of services and goods.  And administrators are there to ensure that the system of production, distribution, and consumption operates as efficiently and routinely as possible.

Administrators, even the ones who arm campus police with guns, batons, and pepper spray, aren’t evil.  Within today’s privatizing public higher education, they’re just trying to do their job largely under conditions not of their own making.  And, as with all systems that pit common good against private gain, violence becomes – – for everybody involved – – the ultimate tool (think fire axe and fire) to wrench the system back into some kind of functional compliance.

The real enemy is privatization.  For now, thanks to students and Occupiers across the state, it looks like Cochabamba is coming to California.



I’m excited to start digging into Dan Cohen’s and Tom Scheinfeldt’s online collection – – Hacking the Academy.  It’s full of really good, rich, stimulating stuff – – perhaps a result of their crowdsourcing editorial approach.  In particular, Tad Suiter‘s “Why Hacking” piece really got me thinking.

Suiter offers a clear, helpful explanation of hacking and of how the “hacker ethos” is “based on the use of playful creation to enrich knowledge of complex systems, whether you’re making furniture from the complex system that is the Ikea catalog, or learning how to game Ma Bell for free calls to Bangalore.”  Hackers encounter glitches or problems within systems and, using local knowledge and tools at-hand, find ways around or through these problems.  Suiter also makes the connection between hacking and “bricolage,” a connection I’ve tried to develop and apply in a couple of pieces on hacking the academic institution.

But, Suiter’s piece also got me thinking about some of the possible limits to “hacking” as a metaphor.

First, to what extent is hacking anti-systemic and to what extent is hacking systemic-affirmative?  In other words, is hacking just ingenious repair work?  Or, is hacking about exposing the insufficiency of any system?  In Suiter’s piece, it’s the former that seems to be emphasized.  As he writes: when you’ve hacked the system, “you’ve fixed something. You’ve improved functionality. And likely, you’ve learned a little something yourself about the functioning of the system you’re working with, and will be better prepared next time you find a bug.”  In this version, the ultimate goal of hacking is to make us all into Maytag repairmen.  (You might remember those old ads for Maytag featuring the bored repair guys who, because of the superiority of Maytag products, have nothing to do.)

Even if he’s orphaned the term, I’m still a big fan of Jim Groom’s “edupunk.”  And, so, I’m not quite content with Suiter’s reformist or technocratic version of hacking.  I just don’t believe in the perfectibility of our current institutions.  Or, in a less philosophical vein (perhaps), hacking as system-maintenance assumes that the system itself is okay, it just needs to work better, more efficiently, happily, etc.  But, what if the system itself is wrong, or bad, or dangerous, or irrational?  Take Ikea.  I’ve got nothing against Swedes and even enjoy an occasional ABBA karaoke – – usually depending on who’s buying the drinks and how many people in the bar might know me.  But, there are lots of arguments to be made against IKEA – – it puts mom and pop shops out of business, it standardizes and regulates taste, it sells some pretty cheap stuff, it’s “big box” approach to distribution and sales is rough on the environment, labor,  etc.  Hacking IKEA in the technocratic sense doesn’t challenge IKEA; it might just conceal the more fundamental issues and problems that constitute IKEA as a “system,” thus actually abetting the bigger problems.

In fact, by its very existence, hacking reveals the insufficiency of any system.  If hacking is a ubiquitous practice today, having escaped the esoteric realm of computer coding into the more generalized domain of culture, then the most important thing to learn from hacking might be that every system is leaky, glitchy, and equally consistent in its dysfunction as in its function.  In other words, one of hacking’s most profound lessons might be that, despite advertising and legitimizing themselves otherwise, systems are the problem, not the solution.

Second, Suiter’s piece reminded me of a recent conversation in which the Chief Academic Officer of my institution pointed to the need to “crowdsource” solutions to our current fiscal woes.  I’m all for crowdsourcing.  However, as I pointed out at the time, crowdsourcing requires platforms (with affordances, practices, and relations) that enable crowdsourcing.  The same is true of hacking.  Think of all the bulletin boards, discussion forums, web sites, and wikis where hackers congregate to trade information, tips, tools, opinions, and splendid varieties of tacit knowledge.  Hackers are not autonomous, creative, geniuses – – despite our very fine American tradition of honoring the tinkerer, the garage band, and the autodidact.  Hackers exist within communities, and these communities create ecologies which in turn depend on platforms for knowledge-making and sharing.

In other words, hacking the academy doesn’t just require hackers and the hacker ethos, it also requires a physical, social, and ideological infrastructure – – or platform – –  that supports and nurtures hacking.  What might this mean in the academy?  If we take hacking seriously, it probably means rethinking the institutional structures, relations, and resources that support our current ways of knowledge-making.  This probably entails rethinking and remaking a whole bunch of different things, from “IT” departments, to faculty roles, to the means by which knowledge circulates, to bureaucratic hierarchies dedicated more to control and management than to creativity and disruption.  And, at what point might this platform actually become more productive and valuable than the “system” that is being hacked? To hop onto my own hobby horse, taking hacking seriously certainly demands that we engage with academic labor and its many contemporary morbid features.

All that being said, maybe I should stop writing and start reading the whole of Hacking the Academy.

It’s not enough for the State to cut and (knee)cap public higher education, now the commentariat is drawing a bead on the value of college education itself.  Several recent reports – – most notably a Harvard Graduate School report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, and the Pew Research Center’s “Is College Worth It?”  – – are providing fuel for the idea that college is over-valued, over-abundant, and basically a cheating proposition.  At the same time, there are rumblings in the corporate sector, most notably voiced by Paypal founder, Peter Thiel, that higher education is the next “bubble” – –  i.e., like the housing “bubble,” too many people are taking on too much debt to finance a commodity of shrinking value.

First, there are reports and studies and then there are media representations of reports and studies.  None of these reports argues against college – – each offers serious critiques of higher education.  In the media, however, they have become the occasions for a signification spiral that plays on our current fears about the economy, class status, education, and the future.

Disasters are tragedies, but they’re also opportunities.  Naomi Klein has dissected many of these seamier opportunities in her Shock Doctrine.  Rebecca Solnit chronicles some of the more affirmative opportunities in her A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.  Standing amidst the smoking ruins of neoliberalism, the real question raised by the “is college worth it” debate is this: why all this frothing about the value of a college education now, at this point in time?  We’re witnessing the State’s material withdrawal from public higher education – – budget cuts, ongoing privatization (via student debt), etc.  Now come the arguments, stories, and myths to rationalize this massive reorganization of the compact between citizens and State.  Welcome to the folklore of triage!

The mounting argument against college comes in several flavors.

Flavor number one: wet mop yarns tinctured with bitters.  This was the gist of a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece last fall about an Eastern Michigan U. graduate in information-technology administration who’s now pushing a broom for $13 an hour, with union benefits.  And, this was the angle that pundits jumped all over when Pew released their “Is College Worth It?” report.  Especially important was the Pew report’s lead item: 57% of Americans surveyed say that U.S. higher ed fails to provide students with good value for their money.  Less well-noted in the media was Pew’s report that 86% of college graduates say college has been a good investment for them personally.  (In fact, the most interesting findings in the Pew report concern university and college presidents: they believe students are increasingly less qualified and hardly study; they’re less concerned than the public about affordability; and an overwhelming majority would like to eliminate faculty tenure.)

That mop might be seasoned with soap, as the “return-on-investment” argument against college also dovetails with the “higher education bubble” yarn.  “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” says dot com wiz, Thiel. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. . . . It’s actually worse than a bad mortgage.  You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”  Further spinning the “bubble” argument, one financial news source has noted, with faintly audible gasps, that the 2006 Economic Report of the President “presents a remarkable fact: Between 2000 and 2005, the average wages of college graduates declined after adjusting for inflation.”  Of course, un-reported is that fact that almost all Americans have seen declining wages over the past ten years.

The class pitch in the “bubble” argument is fairly transparent: the majority of American college students attend public 2-year and 4-year colleges not “fancy” schools charging $50,000 in tuition and expenses.

Still, even on its own merits, the “bubble” fear is more fiction than fact.  Employment rates for very recent college grads have declined since the “recession” began (8%), but they have declined even more sharply for those with only a high school diploma (24.5%).  More importantly, after rising sharply in the 1980s, the “college premium” – – the increased earnings accrued by those with a college diploma – – persists: bachelor’s degree holders earn almost $22,000 more per year than high school diploma holders; women between the ages of 25 and 34 with college degrees earn 79% more than comparable women with a high school diploma; even a little college helps, as individuals with some college earned 17% more than those with just a high school diploma.  Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot more than soap bubbles.

The “bubble” argument appeals to our individual fears – – especially readers and listeners who are borrowing or working overtime (often while attending college) to make tuition payments even as the markets tank, houses go underwater, and benefits get downsized.  These fears ratchet upward, sickeningly for some, when Junior decides to switch majors from petrochemical engineering to creative writing.

Yet, if we step back and look at things from a more collective perspective, the “college premium” also tells us something about  broader, secular trends in the value of college.  In their recent study, The Undereducated American, this is exactly what Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose do.  They read the “college premium” as a message from the labor markets:  employers are willing to pay a premium for more highly educated labor.  In fact, the premium continues to grow – – at about 2% per year.  In other words, demand for college grads is growing.  From this perspective, Carnevale and Rose assert that  the U.S. has been “underproducing college-educated workers for decades.”  Further, they argue that the U.S. needs to add 20 million postsecondary-educated workers to the economy if we want to ameliorate increasing income and skills inequities.  Far from envisioning a bubble, Carnevale and Rose’s analysis presents an ongoing college “bust.”

College costs are rising.  Parents and students today are confronted by a flailing economic regime: stagnant wages; chronic unemployment; shrinking house values; tightening credit; financial markets skidding; an emerging capital strike (where corporations refuse to reinvest bloated profits); and political deadlock.  When you’re clinging to a job, a house, and a pension, the future seems a scary and dim prospect.  Writing a tuition check in these circumstances is a harrowing act of penmanship.

The college value crisis plays on this cathected ball of stomach knots.  The value of college isn’t depreciating – – at least economically.  But as State withdrawal from the public sphere produces further scarcities of opportunity, ideologists of every ilk rush in to cover up the wreckage with scrims and drapes.  What they want you to believe is pretty simple: don’t worry about losing opportunity – – especially the opportunity afforded by education, it wasn’t worth much anyways.

Does all of this mean that we just need to return to the good old days – – education works just fine, colleges are doing a dandy job,  thank you!  Probably not.  My next post explores other flavors and varieties of the college value crisis.