California Students Rise Up, Send Tremors through Society

By Dennis Loo 

Over the last several days, the battle in California has escalated over the “budget crisis” and the massive cuts, layoffs, and fee increases in the university system - the largest university system in the world.
At UCLA, over a thousand students, faculty, and others created a righteous ruckus on Wednesday and Thursday, setting up a tent city, occupying a building for one day, taking to the streets, the inside, and outside, of campus buildings, stopping street traffic, and surrounding members of the UC Board of Regents who had just raised student fees by 32%, telling them “Shame on you!”
The police had to come and forcefully create a cordon for the regents so that they could leave the scene of their crime. Actions at other California university campuses were also held, with 1,000 at Berkeley and hundreds at UC Santa Cruz and at other UC campuses, with various determined actions taking place on Thursday and previously at CSU (California State University) campuses.

On my campus, Cal Poly Pomona, on Thursday, the same day as the Board of Regents meeting and rowdy UCLA actions, a walkout and teach in were held that involved close to 700 attendees. (Here is a short video that shows a slice of the action at Cal Poly). As I sat waiting to speak during the program I watched and listened as students led chants and raised signs and their collective voice. My eyes, I’m not ashamed to say, welled up just looking at the protest because of the power that was being expressed and because this manifestation of collective energy has been too long in coming. My colleague, Political Science Professor Jose Vadi, who was also on the program as a speaker, leaned over to me and told me that this was the most vigorous Cal Poly demonstration he’d ever seen. Vadi recently retired after teaching at Cal Poly for thirty-eight years. During his speech he saluted the students for their actions, expressing the hope that this was the beginning of a very important shift, and called for them to take this out into the communities as ambassadors for higher education.

The powerful program interwove rousing speeches with stirring poetry and dynamic music. The stage crackled. Some students spoke of revolution. Students in the front row off the stage danced in protest and celebration. I witnessed this wondering if this was a turning point: will the all-too quiescent campuses become hotbeds of political life again? Will the battle be engaged in the fight against those who want to run higher education like a straight up business? Will the war against dismantling the current education system and replacing it with a system only the more well-to-do can access be won or lost? Will such a fight also lead to students becoming more aware of their power to impact other, intimately related, political issues of these times? Will students rise to the mission of their generation, or not?

It was wonderful to see the students at Cal Poly and to know that UCLA was kicking butt in Westwood simultaneously. If the student movement grows, then all things become possible – not just a movement about education, but against these unjust, ongoing wars and Bush’s monstrous policies now being continued and legitimized by Obama.

On the next day, Friday, November 19, 2009, Cal Poly’s Faculty Senate Chair sent around a message to all faculty, passing on a directive from the CSU system Chancellor Charley Reed and our campus Provost. Before showing you an excerpt from that letter, it would be helpful for readers to know how severe the situation for students and faculty and staff in the CSU and UC systems is already, before the far more draconian cuts being planned for the immediate future that include abolishing and/or merging programs and departments. Almost all students are having difficulty getting into classes that they need, and some students are literally unable to get into any of the classes they need. Enrollment is being cut by 40,000 in the CSU system. Entering and staying in the CSU or UC, let alone graduating on time, are now real problems, causing great distress for most students. Faculty voted narrowly several months ago to approve a voluntary furlough for this school year in the hopes that a pay cut of over 9% (on top of a pay raise that was supposed to be given to us this past summer that wasn’t and salaries that are still well below comparable institutions) would save some jobs for lecturers (aka adjunct faculty). I say in “hopes” because the Chancellor’s Office refused to promise anything before the vote, despite faculty and our union, the CFA (California Faculty Association), trying our damndest to get an indication of what a yes vote on a furlough would accomplish. Despite this vote on sheer faith by faculty, lecturer ranks continue to be reduced, after massive layoffs at the end of the last school year.

For those outside of higher education: lecturers teach a very large proportion of classes offered, generally one-half or more of the total classes taught. Replacements for tenured and tenure track faculty who have retired or left has either been frozen (as it was last year) or curtailed. As part of the ongoing agenda for administrators to create a more “flexible,” and therefore, more easily controlled, workforce, tenure ranks have been diminishing and lecturer ranks growing for years. Lecturers are not only paid less, they also receive fewer benefits and less job security. Class size, as a result, continues to rise. In the thirteen years that I have been teaching at Cal Poly, average class sizes in my department (where we have and have had the highest, by a substantial margin, student to faculty ratios in our college) have gone from the low 30s to now 48. An English faculty member at UCLA who teaches a poetry class told a local NPR affiliate radio host a few months ago that he once taught 400 students with the help of 20 graduate teaching assistants who taught discussion sections, but now has to teach 800+ students without the help of any TA’s. My waitlists for courses I teach are now several times larger than they have ever been, with twelve people waitlisted for a class of 48. Some colleagues in other departments have described extraordinarily long wait lists.

It is in that context that the following excerpt from the Friday, November 19, 2009 email should be read. The CSU Chancellor in this letter says that he wants to increase graduation rates and bridge the achievement gap. He says this, incredibly, while at the same time he is continuing to slash the budget, reducing faculty ranks, and raising student fees, doing all of the things, in other words, that are the very opposite of what you would be doing if you wanted to accomplish the goals he says he wants to accomplish. The only way you could possibly achieve his goal would be to further dumb down the curriculum. If his directive weren’t serious, it would be understandable if people took it to be satire about this budget crisis. To add insult to injury, the Chancellor wanted recommendations by December 25, 2009, an impossible timetable even if faculty really wanted to have input and thought that the process would take their input into serious account.

“A key goal of the CSU’s strategic plan, Access to Excellence, is the effort to address graduation rates. Unless things change, there are likely to be over a million fewer college graduates in the coming decades than the number needed to sustain California’s economy. Particularly troubling is the achievement gap, the differences between the graduation rates of low income and under-represented minority students and their

“The chancellor's office has developed a new initiative to deliver results on graduation rates, particularly raising overall achievement and narrowing achievement gaps. In a two-day Executive Council meeting, presidents and provosts met with Sir Michael Barber and his team. In Tony Blair's second term as Prime Minister of Britain, Barber led a ‘Delivery Team’ which reported to the Prime Minister and worked with government agencies to deliver on specific goals - things like increasing the on-time performance of trains, reducing emergency room waiting times, and raising literacy levels in British schools. The strategies Barber's Delivery Team used have been applied successfully in delivering on public goals in several countries and

The letter does not go on to announce that the Chancellor wants to restore funding to the university in order to facilitate this. 

A Google search under Sir Michael Barber’s name and his concoction “Deliverology” produces finds such as this:

“Barber set up and ran the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) – a misnomer, since it didn’t deliver; instead it established a coercive regime to force others to comply.” (John Seddon, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, Triarchy Press, p. vii).
“Durham University’s Peter Tymms … concluded that the statistical procedures behind the startling results on which Barber had built his reputation for delivery were faulty. When the statistical error was corrected the results flattened out. Tymms drew parallels with the US state of Texas, where similarly spectacular results had been achieved, only for ‘the Texas miracle’ to be revealed as an illusion. He attributed the dramatic improvements to the teachers ‘teaching to the test’ and concluded that the same was happening in England.” (Seddon, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, referring to Peter Tymms, “Are Standards Rising in English Primary Schools?” British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, August 2004 pp. 477-494.) 
“Take primary school Sats as an example. No matter that many teachers have had serious reservations about the key stage 1 and 2 tests, that there is plenty of evidence to show that some of the improvements are down to teachers teaching to the tests and that, at the very least, year 6 has become more about making sure the primary school gets the necessary results to preserve its league-table position than ensuring children get a fulfilling and rounded education. ‘People have always made dire predictions about Sats,’ [Barber] says. ‘They said that by concentrating on getting 80% of pupils to achieve level 4, the numbers reaching level 5 would be reduced. This didn't happen. They said that focusing on English and maths would detract from science. It didn't. And the notion that schools are teaching to the tests is nonsense; schools that did that would get worse results, as their kids would be bored.’" (“Rose-Tinted Memoirs”)

No Child Left Behind is the US equivalent of Sir Barber’s “Deliverology” in Britain. NCLB has produced the same compulsions, teachers who no longer have time to teach and who are forced to prepare students for high-stakes tests by teaching them, either directly or close to, the answers to the questions, rather than training them to think. (The consequences of this I see in my students who have a harder time identifying what is important and how to master a corpus of material, not through any fault of their own, but because they have been trained so much by having their hands held and being told what the answer is). Notice that Barber dismisses the criticism that his Deliverology is producing teaching to the test without Barber thinking that he needs to do any actual investigation into the charge. As Seddon notes of this “reform” at p. iv:

“There are now many thousands of people engaged in telling others what to do and inspecting them for compliance. Public services have requirements placed on them by a plethora of bodies, the biggest single weakness of which, common to them all, is that they are based on opinion rather than knowledge. The regime, ignorant of this essential shortcoming, legitimises the role of the many specifiers by giving them the power to demand compliance. This is dysfunctionality of a high order.”

For those in the field of higher education in the US, the thousands engaged in telling faculty what to do and inspecting us for compliance is the current buzzword for educator managers called “assessment.

I were to invent a rationale to show why the Chancellor and his gang are an ongoing disaster for higher education and why they need to be forced out, I could not have come up with a more telling and powerful example than the fact that the Chancellor and all of the CSU presidents and provosts have endorsed (and are no doubt paying, during a financial crisis, very fat fees to) Sir Michael Barber. It apparently never occurred to our Chancellor to ask his own faculty what they think would work and would help. After all, what do the people who actually teach students know about teaching?

The battle over higher education in California is really a battle over the shape of the future, not just in California, but the country.

* * *

The following is the short speech that I delivered at Thursday’s Cal Poly action:

In the 1950s and 1960s California boasted the nation’s best school system at the K-12 level. It was the model for the country. As a result of government policies that began being instituted in the late 1970s, however, California’s schools have been sliding progressively downhill. Our K-12 schools are now at the bottom in the nation, along with Mississippi and Guam. Higher education for its part is now under threat of being transformed into something unrecognizable, damaged in the same way that K-12 has been.

Why is this happening?

The present crisis did not come about just because of the deep recession. This recession and this crisis in education are the logical outcome of policies that privilege those with a lot against those with much less. These policies trump private interests and private goods over public goods and public interests.

This crisis, in other words, is an induced crisis.

Disinvesting in public goods such as higher education has become the dominant US public policy over the last thirty or so years. The crown jewel of this policy in California is Prop 13, passed in 1978, that not only froze property taxes for senior citizens, itself a worthy idea, but also, and here is the unworthy part, reduced taxes for business. Capitol Records, for example, pays 50 cents/sq ft v. a small house valued at $300k pays as much as 60x that rate. Prop 13 reduced property taxes by 57% and it also made tax increases impossible unless 2/3 supported them in both chambers of the legislature.

Schools receive their primary funding from property taxes.

People like CSU Chancellor Charley Reed say that there is no money for the CSU in Sacramento, but somehow there is the money to pay his salary of $452,000 plus a free house and free car and gas. [Loud groans and expressions of shock from the audience] This is more than two times what Obama is paid. Somehow there has been the money to allot Cal Poly Pomona administrators as a whole 50% more since [Mike] Ortiz has been president [of Cal Poly], while lecturers and tenure track faculty ranks are whittled away and our pay is cut and student fees and class sizes balloon each year.

Personal benefits vs. group benefits. Those who already have a lot v. those with increasingly little.

Another glaring example of privileging private interests over public interests is the fact that California is the only place in the nation that doesn’t tax oil companies for extracting petroleum. If AB 656 in the state legislature passes, the funds from this extraction tax would fully fund the entire California university system.

Wouldn’t you think then that the CSU and UC administrators would be lobbying Sacramento hard for AB 656? Guess what? They oppose it. The oil companies are making record profits in the tens of billions per quarter. That’s profits, not revenue. Profits of tens of billions every three months. The money is there. But the money isn’t going where it should. Fat cats eat lobster and steak and the rest of us can just “eat cake,” as Marie Antoinette so famously said.  

There is no reason why the university system should be starving. The university faces draconian cuts because corporate interests have been strangling the people of California for their own selfish purposes.

Reed’s solution is to make professors teach an extra class each semester. He says that this would be amazingly “efficient.” See, that’s the problem: the CSU Chancellor thinks that the universities are businesses. Administrators want to run it like a for-profit business. They want to radically transform higher education and make it into a business in which private concerns can make lots and lots of money and the rest of us can just “eat cake.”

Education is a public good. It is wrong and unseemly to prostitute education as a business for sale to the highest bidder.

If the same people and policies that have driven us to this crisis are allowed to get their way, then the interests of the people, you, me, your families and future students and their families will be irreparably harmed. The fight that we are engaged in is a fight over what vision will prevail. Is it going to be the fat cats and their dreams of $$$ or is it going to be faculty and students, who are the university? [Cheers] We have no choice but to take up the mantle of responsibility to fight for a very different vision because if we don’t then the wrong side will win. We have to provide the leadership and the vision. We have to win the battle for public opinion.  So much is riding on this. As California goes, so goes the nation. We are a bellwether. Which will it be?