Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The LAT, The Regents, and The Conventional Wisdom

By Michael Meranze

With so extensive a demand, it follows that a very large part of our social comment--and nearly all that is well regarded--is devoted at any time to articulating the conventional wisdom.  To some extent, this has been professionalized.  Individuals, most notably the great television and radio commentators, make a profession of knowing and saying with great elegance and unction what their audience will find most acceptable.  But, in general, the articulation of the conventional wisdom is a prerogative of academic, public, or business position.  Thus any individual, on being elected president of a college or university, automatically wins the right to enunciate the conventional wisdom.
                     John Kenneth Galbraith

The Los Angeles Times responded with remarkable alacrity to the news that California legislators--concerned by the continual fee hikes and the size of executive compensation at UC and CSU--might begin to demand greater oversight over how state monies are spent in higher education.  Indeed, I can't think of a more rapid response to an educational issue from the Editorial Board in recent years.  One day we hear that legislators are considering certain steps, the next day we get a counter-blast from the state's leading newspaper.  But is this abstract possibility really the most pressing issue for the LAT to weigh in on?  What is the fuss all about?  The editorial gives clues about what is really at stake--and it gives a glimpse into the conventional wisdom of California's elite opinion makers.

Entitled "The Road To Mediocrity," the editorial opines that "The Legislature should not be allowed to micromanage the UC and CSU systems."  While I, too, am wary of the legislature intervening in the everyday operation of UC and CSU (recent developments in states like Texas and Washington are enough to give one pause) there is a problem here: even according to the LAT's own reporting no one is proposing "micro-managing" the two systems.  Instead legislators are contemplating placing limits on executive pay and student tuition and demanding greater transparency.  I can understand why UCOP and the Regents might not like these ideas, but the LAT?

To be sure, this refusal to look hard at the Regents and upper-management is not out of character for the paper.  After all, the only person at the LAT who was willing to say anything about Dick Blum's apparent conflict of interest regarding online education was Michael Hiltzik

But to be fair the real action is elsewhere.  The issue of micro-managing is actually about market forces.  After shedding symbolic tears on behalf of students whose tuition was raised the Editorial Board moves onto its concrete gripe with the legislature: it didn't raise fees high enough on community college students.  Let's forget that CC college fees more than doubled between 2003 and 2005, let's forget that more and more students are being driven from the CSU and UC system into the Community Colleges (already overburdened) because of the rising fees at the universities, the micro-management that the LAT apparently fears is that the legislature will get in the way of letting universities charge students as much as they can.

Despite its claim to defend the Master Plan and the multiple functions of the UC, the Editorial Board is unable to see any source of income other than students.  Increasing Community College fees may seem like a small step to the LAT, but the Community Colleges already serve the poorest students, many part-time as they work to support themselves and their families.  Given that they are the essential entry point to higher education for many it is absolutely central that they be as open as possible.  Funding needs to come from somewhere besides the students.  And while the Editorial Board is  worried that the UCs and the CSUs will price themselves too high the only alternative they imagine is cutting labor costs.  While they now claim that the University needs to stay in the race for "top managers and star professors" they previously suggested that the furloughs be extended a year because most professors wouldn't actually leave because of the pay cuts (since most, I suppose, had nowhere to go).

The LAT should be taking the lead in calling for a more equitable tax system to address the structural problems that we face.  At the least they should push for ending a tax structure designed to shield corporations and commercial real estate or and argue that the power of finance capital (on the Regents and beyond) be curbed.  Instead they, like the austerity mongers in Washington and elsewhere, are calling for the burdens of the economic crisis to be borne by those who are already burdened the most. 

The play of the market, rather than any shared vision of a common good, drives the vision of the Times--and the history of the last few years has done nothing to shake it.  And in this belief they replicate the conventional wisdom of those who benefit from today's plutocracy, i.e. those who have created the economic crisis in the first place.

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