Blogbeat: How UC Berkeley is Being Dismantled

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday September 14, 2010 - 01:39:00 PM

Chris Newfield, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, has recently published an article called “Bain’s Blow to Berkeley”. It’s a gloomy analysis of how cost saving measures being implemented at UC Berkeley are likely not only to harm the University’s teaching mission, but in fact to increase rather than diminish costs. It’s a moving work. 

Some of you won’t have heard of Chris Newfield (I hadn’t) and some will (he’s a famous author and well known within the UC system). I am thinking that perhaps more people should know of him. After all, few people can write 27 paragraphs – 2500 words – of financial facts and figures alongside careful application of management theory and receive responses like this comment: 

“Anonymous said... Professor Newfield, as a staff member who has been through a take no prisoners downsizing and admin unit merge, I read your report with tears forming in my eyes. I think it is very `right on’. I hope your report is sent to all Chancellors, EVCs, VCAs, and Senate Chairs.” (emphasis added.) 

The new Newfield article is about a rather ironic development at UC Berkeley. Chancellor Birgeneau, faced with cuts in money provided by the state, began to seek ways to save money and prepare for massive budget reductions. He did what any high level executive might do: he paid a consulting firm, Bain and Co., three million dollars to look the place over and make some cost saving suggestions. Oddly enough, “Avoid paying someone three million dollars to tell you how to save money,” was not among the suggestions in Bain’s report. Newfield goes to town on many of the suggestions that are in the report. 

I’ll give you a taste of Newfield’s “read it and weep” analysis of how Bain and Birgeneau haven’t quite nailed this cost saving plan down all that well but, before I do, how about a brief introduction to Newfield? 

In October of 2008, shortly before the national election, Newfield wrote, Public Universities at Risk: 7 Damaging Myths. To set the stage, he predicted an upswing in government spending on vital infrastructure: 

“The presidential election has generated new proposals for reinvestment in America's basic social infrastructure: roads and bridges, health care, job training and employment, renewable energy, and education. Barack Obama's campaign has called for a ‘National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank,’ which has growing Congressional support, and last January mayors and governors from both major parties formed a coalition to start the rebuilding process.” 

(The current bill to implement such a bank (H.R. 2521) is pending in the Senate. Government infrastructure spending has also increased by other means.) 

Newfield has his optimistic side. He continues: 

“The current financial crisis will undoubtedly cause short-term public budget cuts as government officials figure out how to pay a staggering bailout bill. The current financial crisis will undoubtedly cause short-term public budget cuts as government officials figure out how to pay a staggering bailout bill. But in the long run, it will reduce many leaders' confidence in market forces and encourage greater interest in public investments in the economy. People will be increasingly reluctant to let financial markets determine their standard of living.” (emphasis added.) 

I’m not sure I yet see a popular push for increased government spending to insure standards of living against the vagrancies of financial markets but perhaps that’s just around the bend. Nevertheless, it brings us to what I most wanted to share: 

“Yet even though higher education is an important source of economic and social progress, public investment is not keeping up with increased enrollments or the costs of high-quality teaching and research — and the future doesn't look any brighter. [….] 

“Why is public education the poor pupil of public investment? Part of the explanation is political: A quarter-century of culture wars has undermined the egalitarian values and tax-based public infrastructure that made America a mass middle-class society after World War II. Since 1980, stratification by income has steadily worsened, and higher education has been caught in an ideological crossfire between traditional supporters and conservative elites who want to set that broad middle-class majority back. [….]” (emphasis added.) 

There’s my friend. See what he did there? The problem isn’t, in his view, that public universities are the inevitable, necessary victims of government budget reality. Rather, he believes that they are under budgetary attack precisely because they help to create a middle class rather than a beaten down proletariat. And they have been for a long time. And he can prove it. 

It’s not a statement he makes lightly. Around the time he published the above statements about class warfare, he’d published “The Unmaking of the University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class”, a nearly 500 page book , very well reviewed, exploring the topic. 

I can not concisely do full justice to Newfield’s full analysis of the Bain cost saving report. He argues in some detail, drawing upon his extensive research into how University’s work, that Bain is proposing to save costs by creating stronger centralized management, reducing the freedom of individual departments to address their specific needs directly, and imposing new and greater administrative costs. These are the kinds of words that bring tears to the eyes of an anonymous staffer on the inside: 

“The image [depicted by Bain] is the bureaucratic version of the alien ship in Independence Day, a looming, inverted pyramid in which top dwarfs bottom and threatens to swallow it whole. Everything flows top-down, and the administrative content takes the form of goals-metrics-evaluation which are communicated to units (metrics –assessment of performance), on down to supervisors (accountability functions) and then finally to individuals (performance metrics tied to unit goals.) Relationships are reduced to the abstract modalities of compliance embodied in assessment procedures. Management is not support for the university’s necessarily diverse creative functions but is a state of permanent evaluation. There is no respect here for the autonomy of the units – departmental staff, student services, and technical staff for laboratories – that are close to the `customer’ (cf. `autonomous culture’ as a source of inefficiency in procurement, slide 35). The tone is of control through communication, through finance, through even more of the endless audit and evaluations to which UC employees are already subject. The implicit diagnosis is that Berkeley’s employees are inefficient because they are insufficiently assessed, measured, and financially incentivized.” 

Back to work, droids. And knock it off with the teaching, already. 

Until next time, do be in touch: