By Rei Terada
In March 2010, about a thousand people at UC Irvine marched here and on the street, on University Avenue. I was amused that a couple of commentators wrote afterward that UCI students were “protesting reality.” Someone headlined a blog for The Atlantic, “Students Protest University Cutbacks, Reality”. This remark assumes that once reality has been determined, you have no right to say anything further. That assumption can be refuted in a number of ways, even if—and that’s an “if”—we don’t dispute the amount of the state budget shortfall since the recession of 2008. First of all, anyone who cares about reality should always ask, what makes the reality the way it is? What are the conditions on which reality depends? That is the question known as “critique,” and critique is the mainstay of the Enlightenment education that Universities historically support.
The condition of the reality that UCI students protested in 2010 is that the state has been defunding public education since before the global financial crisis. The UC Regents claim that this in turn is another inalterable and involuntary reality that they can do nothing about, but that’s not true. A few years ago it would have cost the median California taxpayer $32 to return UC funding to 2000 levels. Since then the economy’s grown even worse, and now it would cost $49. The UC Regents’ point of view is that the California taxpayer is ignorant or selfish, and should just cough up the $50—that the Legislature should impose a tax. But by doubling tuition since 2000, long before the global financial crisis--last week proposing to raise it again, 16% a year for the next four years--and giving almost a third of the places (31% at Berkeley now, for example) to out of state students paying $36,000 a year, the UC Regents give California taxpayers no reason to fund an education that they’re being told is no longer for them. Middle-class Californians can’t afford the tuition increases; they can’t bear to take on any more debt; and they have no reason to contribute when qualified students are no longer guaranteed a UC education.
The leadership of the university bears the responsibility for these community-destroying policies. The more they turn from public to private money, the less incentive the legislature has to raise revenues on the university’s behalf; and the more they privatize the university, the more middle-class tazpayers are right to feel that this whole project is no longer theirs. These arguments have been made in financial detail by Robert Meister of UCSC and Christopher Newfield of UCSB. UC Administration is turning the wheel in the wrong direction; and they have hired a president, Mark Yudof, who came in with a template for privatizing the university before the global financial crisis had even happened. President Yudof stated in print in 2007 that he intended to raise tuition by 32%--exactly the amount that the Regents did raise it in a first so-called “response” to the crisis: a response that predated the supposedly inevitable problem. The condition that supports our current reality of massive tuition increases and cuts is a program of privatization that actively weakens the foundations of citizen support and then blames the citizens for not being supportive.
Our reality would have been different if instead of making students pay—-and pay-—and pay—-and pay again, the leadership of the university had said something like the following:
“The state has been decreasing funding for decades, and we can’t go on any more. Now we’re in crisis. And in crisis the education of students and the well-being of our community comes first. The educational part of the budget will be the last to be cut. We will not be asking more from our lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers than we ask from our highest-paid workers. We will not be laying off janitors and food service workers while giving expensive raises to ourselves. We’ll be cutting from management. We’re asking for salary reductions from everyone making over $100,000 a year. We’re trying to renegotiate our contracts so that private money donated to us for non-educational purposes, such as construction, can be turned toward education and student support. And the cuts that we do have to implement will be shared equally, because every part of the university is equally valuable. To do otherwise would be crazy: it would pit groups of people against one another at the time when they’re most stressed. If everyone shares the cuts equally, everyone will realize that this concerns them personally. And we’ll restore the resources if and when our situation gets better. Nothing that currently exists is to be closed down permanently, even if we can’t run it right now. By staying together, we can affirm our community, whatever the practical hardships might be.”
That’s what I would have liked to hear in another reality, and that’s why this reality is well worth protesting.
You might think that even if reality is worth protesting, protesting doesn’t work to change it. My impression, for what it’s worth, is that student protests have slowed down the process of privatization, and in fact are the only thing that has had any impact on the process. It’s also clear that student protests globally have, along with Tunisia and Egypt, created the conditions for the current Occupation movement--California student protesters especially. Protesting reality today is no longer a joke in the way commentators thought it was in 2909-2010.
All of that said, however, it also makes sense to think of what the community wants to do in a way that goes beyond what it wants someone else to do, whether that’s the State or the UC Regents or local administration. It’s good, in the manner of Occupy, also to ask what the community wants to do regardless of what others think. It’s not just a matter of being in a terrible situation, but of how you want to live it. Just as there are things that money can’t buy, there are things that cuts can’t take away if you don’t let them. You can cancel a philosophy class, but you can’t defund critique--not against informed resistance. In the future it might become the case that you have to organize more of your own education; if classes you want to take no longer exist, you may need to connect with other people who want to learn it and teach it, and with their help take initiative to make it happen. While UC is pushing toward online classes for pay, we could make our own courses and post them online for free. Professors could allow in their classrooms UC students who are no longer enrolled because they couldn’t afford to pay or because they couldn’t make it academically because they were working so many hours. Students could donate their used textbooks to an exchange where you could leave an expensive textbook that you no longer needed and pick one up for free that you did need, instead of selling books back to the bookstore.
The fact is that UCI students already do a lot of things like this. There are already entirely student-run concerts and student-run lecture series and panels and radio stations and poetry societies and magazines to which the official culture of the university pays no attention, but this unofficial culture is thriving nonetheless. There is hardship involved in this--that is, doing these kinds of things is a lot of work and time, and it’s never for pay. But they make this time and place something that the plans of administrators are incapable of recognizing. What I’m describing now is not so much protesting reality as modifying it while continuing to protest it. The possibility of doing more of that, on the horizon now maybe by necessity, is the hidden potential of our lamentable situation: the possibility that students might transform the university at the moment when it’s being abandoned by its managers.