Public Comment

Commentary: The Myth of Cooperation

By Sharon Hudson
Friday September 07, 2007

On Tuesday, Sept. 4, I attended the public comment before the City Council on the university’s proposed Memorial Stadium athletic center and other interrelated projects. Opponents of the university project outnumbered supporters by two or three to one. But the repeated misuse of the word “cooperation” by supporters of the UC project during that event compels me to comment. 

To recap events leading up to the meeting: Without consulting with the city or the community, UC hatched a project to intensify multiple uses of the stadium area, a plan that would (famously) demolish a mature, attractive oak grove and (less famously) pile yet more damage on the neighbors of the university. The city and other groups sued to protect the trees and themselves. The university responded with a settlement offer to marginally reduce the damage. UC officials and supporters called UC’s offer “cooperation,” and claim to be “baffled” that the project victims and City Council refused to “cooperate” by accepting it.  

As usual, it is difficult to tell whether the university is self-deluded, or merely trying to delude the rest of us.  

The university and its supporters are confusing “cooperating” with “bargaining,” which is the real model for this situation. In bargaining, two parties are motivated solely by their own self-interests. Each attempts to achieve as many of his own unilateral goals as possible. Bargaining generally results in fair, or mutually acceptable, outcomes only if the two parties have approximately equal power.  

Because it is so powerful, and because the City of Berkeley is so effectively deluded, the university usually does what it wants without having to bargain. But the city is the only Berkeley entity with the power to achieve a bargaining outcome remotely resembling equity or justice. This is why it is abusive and unjust when the city fails to defend its citizens from the university, and forces citizens with few resources to defend themselves against a multi-billion-dollar entity. 

Unlike bargaining, to cooperate is to act or work with another or others for a “common purpose,” or “mutual benefit.” This means that the two partners share a goal and work together to achieve it. Because the goal is shared and the strategy is not adversarial, cooperation works fine despite imbalances in power and resources. The university cooperates occasionally when it shares goals with someone and can generate good PR for itself. This happens on “feel good” issues (student community volunteers, etc.), but rarely on land use issues.  

UC’s multi-million-dollar PR machine works overtime to convince us that we share UC’s goals. Most Californians agree with the goal of providing higher education and research. But beyond that, things become murky very quickly, especially in the host UC cities that bear a disproportionate share of UC detriments and costs. That’s why UC is doing its utmost to convince us that both a winning football team and a “high performance student athletic center,” built precisely where and how they want it, are vital to higher education in California and therefore in Berkeley’s best interest.  

Who believes this? 

Sadly, in almost all land use and livability matters, the university and the citizens of Berkeley share no common goal. The university’s development goals are entirely internal, often questionable, and rarely benefit the citizens of Berkeley. Because UC does not share the goal of keeping the city livable and pleasant, their gain is always our loss. In fact, the university is notorious for “internalizing the benefits and externalizing the detriments” of all its activities.  

The “goal” of the nearly powerless citizens is simply reactive: to minimize the damage. But minimizing the damage done by someone else’s goal hardly constitutes half of a shared goal. It stretches the definition of “mutual benefit.” So does giving or receiving payment for unwanted damages; this too is bargaining, not cooperation.  

Real cooperation starts early, by sharing goals and plans and asking each other how we can be of mutual assistance on mutual goals. If the university really believed that it shared any stadium project goals with Berkeleyans, it would have started “cooperating” in time for Berkeleyans to nix the Memorial Oak Grove location when it was still just a stupid idea and not a full-fledged plan. Devising plans in isolation without early consultation with others about their needs is not intended to be the beginning of cooperation. At best it is the beginning of bargaining. True cooperation on land use is very difficult, especially in crowded areas.  

Berkeleyans have a remarkable appetite for self-sacrifice, which has allowed bad development to diminish our city. But until we stand up and demand that the university make it a goal to be honorable in its treatment of others and to keep Berkeley livable, Berkeley citizens and the university can never cooperate. We can only move beyond bargaining into cooperation when the university acknowledges the legitimacy of our goals, not merely its own agenda. 

No matter how much they pretend otherwise, the university and other powerful developers love the bargaining model, in which they have the upper hand because of their power. However, it is to the developers’ advantage to pretend to be in a cooperative model, because it plays on the middle-class desire to be “nice,” which is pervasive in Berkeley, even in neighborhoods under attack by people who are not nice at all.  

When involuntarily caught in a bargaining model with a powerful adversary, do not accept the myth of cooperation. When your “partner” calls you “uncooperative,” ask him to explain your shared goals and mutual benefits. If the goal was not on your own “to do” list before your “partner” showed up with his project, you can bet you’re going to be a lot better off accumulating power than being nice. Good luck. 


Sharon Hudson is a university neighbor.