Public Comment

Take Back Public Education for Society, Not for Economy

By Sebastian Groot
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 06:57:00 PM

What is activism at UC Berkeley today? What limits it? What promotes it? What mechanisms challenge and shape the way we interact with problems in our world? Is sending an e-mail letter to a politician a form of activism or pressing support for a social cause on Facebook or attending an hour-long rally? 

The type of activism found on campus today is not completely different or less powerful than it was in the past. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) and the Third World Strike in the ’60s and ’70s eventually shut down the university. The FSM was based on ideals of openly speaking one’s emotions and concerns without fear of being punished and suppressed. This freedom related to a broad range of UC students as well as people outside the university. The Third World Strike assembled numerous and diverse ethnic groups to challenge the Regents’ power, leading to the creation of the ethnic studies department. 

Today, new mechanisms of speech control that are less direct still exist and constantly challenge our freedoms. These controls work through many forms such as advertising, fear, trust, and/or disassociation from the larger community. Other controls are the lack of good information, or sometimes more important, loss of access to good information. The internet is full of information, but it is short in depth. Are we able to do the type of activism of the ’60s and ’70s today?  

A current form of indirect control may be the gradual and quietly accepted increase of tuition fees. Since the ’70s—when the cost of California’s public universities began rising from free to costly—students/parents have been bit by bit forced to pay more money for education. This constant tuition increase may have serious social and political implications on student activism. 

What is the benefit of public universities charging students more money? Is it to maintain our research capacity? Or paying administrative officials such as President Yudof salaries that are triple that of the average professor? What does President Yudof do for the students and the university? Is his job primarily to delegate power from the Regents to the chancellors as well as to raise more money for the university from private donors to support research and an ever increasing cost of administration, including his well-endowed office? This differs from his official statement of his focus on increasing California’s investment in “human capital” and “innovation.”  

Similar questions can be applied to the chancellors of each UC campus who rarely speak directly to students or faculty except through the occasional campus wide e-mails. As explained by UC Berkeley Dean of Students Jonathan Pollard, Berkeley’s chancellor is busy soliciting private donations from numerous businesses, organizations, and governments across the world. Some may argue that they do attend a few public events and fundraisers, such as Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau attending the pride-conditioning Pavlovian bonfire during homecoming or President Yudof’s fall fundraising campaign to raise $500 million, but these are mainly PR and not a key component to quality education.  

Constructing new UC buildings doesn’t make the university any cheaper either. Given the economic crisis and the shortfall of state funds it would be better to halt non-academic projects such as high-tech sports facilities than to raise tuition fees by using fear and extortion to get more money from students and tax payers. The university’s main focus should be on making minds, not careers.  

And what about those UC Regents? They set their own salaries from public funds, yet they are non-elected officials, solely appointed by the governor. This situation requires challenge and debate.  

Are students passionate about their studies or are they studying to get a degree mainly for a job? Can the two be combined? How do you protest against an administrator who controls the campus police as well as the rules of protest without some form of civil disobedience and good news reporting? What is it about the space of activism at Berkeley today that is different from its past or other parts of the world?  

Have we merely commodified our dissent in this society that lives for economy? How about an economy that works for society?  

If students have passion for a subject, then they are likely to get good grades and a good job regardless of whether they aim for a career or not. Over-emphasis on careerism and jobs after school may produce apathetic students who are only learning for the grade and the degree and not because they love what they are learning. Its time to take back public education for society and not for companies who want the well trained, obedient careerist ready to enter a cookie cutter job market.  

Students who choose to focus on their personal careers rather than getting a broad education do deserve equal respect and resources, but education should not be limited to this single pursuit, especially not at a public research university such as UC Berkeley. The student who wishes to obtain a diverse and open education should have the environment available to seek it. These concerns laid out in this piece are resonating out of a greater fear that that the university is being incrementally standardized, routinized, transformed, and designed into a machine that is reproducing modeled students, faculty, and staff, leaving the numerous dissenters and free-thinkers underrepresented or simply, unheard.  


Sebastian Groot is a Berkeley resident.