Ya, Somos Bolivianos! (Notes on the current UC/CSU crisis)

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  Agua del Tunari’s contract was revoked.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.



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