Public Comment

Vivisecting the University of California

By Gray Brechin
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:48:00 AM

In her latest book Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich contends that positive thinking can render you powerless when it overrides reality. It did so for a man I knew whose face was being eaten by cancer. He dabbed at the suppurating wound with a handkerchief while sunnily burbling about everything but that or seeking treatment. I wondered how he could so blithely ignore what was obvious to everyone else. I wonder the same about the UC administrators and regents. 

On Oct. 2, former water attorney and now UC Vice President Dan Dooley announced that his Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources would be closing the University’s Center for Water Resources and attempting to find someone other than UC Berkeley to take its world-renowned Water Resources Archives in order to save money. The UC President’s Office was initiating the action as it “looked for opportunities to integrate and create synergy with the strategic initiatives.” The action, Dooley concluded, would give the University “the opportunity to realize our vision, to strengthen our proven commitment to the people of California, and to shape the future we all share.” 

Even as the administration imposes cutbacks on the university greater than anything suffered during the Great Depression, it burbles on about its highly compensate commitment to maintaining the excellence and greatness of a world-class institution and the undimmed prestige of its diplomas. President Mark Yudof regularly proclaims that as much as it pains him and the regents to sharply raise student tuition and lay off two thousand employees, “We will make it through today’s challenges as well. At the end of the day, the university will be stronger and reach even higher levels of achievement” as long as “we don’t surrender to our greatest enemy, the easy allure of mediocrity.” 

Keep dabbing at that wound, President Yudof. 

The very presence of superb research resources like the Water Resources Archives—and their synergy with others—has made the University of California at Berkeley a magnet for scholars, filmmakers, engineers, authors, and others. The President’s Office is now dismantling that magnet while claiming that it isn’t. If one wishes to compare, for example, the means by which Los Angeles’ and San Francisco’s power elites seized distant rivers to assure their respective cities’ perpetual growth, one can consult the papers of engineer J.B. Lippincott in the Water Resources Archives and then trot a few hundred yards over to the Bancroft Library to study those of Michael O’Shaughnessy. One can peruse thousands of historic and contemporary photographs and maps found nowhere else. Kevin Knuuti, the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District says that the Corps relies upon Archives documents to protect the state capital from floods. 

Contrary to the University’s proud motto—Let There Be Light—a little more darkness falls when such public resources as the Archives are snuffed just as the state pushes for a vast and costly revamp of its water infrastructure. Dr. Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, says “Shutting the Archives would serve the purpose of those who would seek to hide the unseemly history of California water — in the files of the archives are the stories, histories, and dirty linen of how we got where we are today,” not to mention where we are going. 

The determination of some in Sacramento and the university administration to apply a business ethos to public education recalls Governor Ronald Reagan’s discovery that the Bancroft Library had accumulated treasures of extraordinary value. In addition to making students pay the cost of their education, Reagan’s administration proposed selling its collections to fund other, more productive, units of the university operations. Saner heads prevailed, giving the University a few more decades to boast itself a world-class institution. 

That reprieve is ending as the administration vivisects the institution it manages. Outstanding professors are packing their bags, and prospective ones are rethinking offers to jump onto the foundering shipwreck. President Yudof has claimed that “As a leader, it is important to be truthful and direct.” He, and Dan Dooley, should quit dabbing at the wound. They need to tell Californians the truth about the university’s headlong plunge into the mediocrity that they now deny. 


Gray Brechin is a three-time alumnus of the University of California Berkeley and a Visiting Scholar in its Department of Geography He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.