Thursday, November 21, 2013

Protesting, Dissent, and Unionization

November 20th was a perplexing day for some on the UC campuses.  As AFSCME and UAW held a joint strike, many students and media people wanted to know why graduate students would go out on strike to support mostly manual workers.  Of course, the reason for this support was that both unions were protesting against the sense that the UC administration does not respect collective action and collective bargaining.  Moreover, what really scares and confuses many people in power is the sight of seeing both service and professional workers protesting together.

People in power must know that a coalition of organized professional and service workers could be one of the only groups strong enough to stop the neoliberal political economy, and when you throw recent immigrants and indebted students into the mix, a very threatening progressive coalition emerges. Although some may say that the protests and strike were really only about pensions and pay, it is clear that a more fundamental democratic yearning was evident in these actions. Not only do workers and students feel that they do not have a voice at their own institutions, but they also feel alienated by the silent forces of global capitalism and austerity politics.

AFSCME did a very smart thing by working with various student groups to form a diverse coalition of workers, students, and faculty, and while the peaceful demonstrations did not generate much police presence, recent trends suggest that once organized dissent becomes visible and disruptive, it will be countered in a forceful way.  Let us hope that this is the beginning of a more forceful organization of the people who make this university work.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Message for the Regents and President Napolitano

As the UC regents meet this week, it is important to look at some of the major issues facing the University of California system.  One of the topics that has received very little attention is the fact that UC has close to $16 billions of debt, and this may be tolerable with historically low interest rates, but once interest rates increase, two large problems will emerge.  First of all, UC will spend even more money servicing its debt, and second, UC may have to reduce the programs that are dependent on cheap borrowing. 

As debt has gone up, UC has continued to increase the size of classes and reduce the number of teachers.  As the graduate student union’s recent report indicates, the quality of education has gone down, but the rankings of the campuses has continued to escalate.  The major proposed solution to this problem of educational quality is to turn to online courses; however this cure could be much worse than the disease.  Not only do online courses threaten to further reduce instructional quality, but the system has not figured out how to fund the sharing of courses and students among campuses.  For instance, I have asked UCOP officials many times about what happens if most of the UCSB students decide to take their Spanish classes online with UC Irvine. In this situation, will UCSB have to fire its faculty who currently teach Spanish? And who will pay UC Irvine to hire more teachers or graduate students to cover the increased enrollments?  Moreover, how much should UCSB pay UC Irvine to teach UCSB students?  None of these questions have been answered, and instead, the system plans to throw a lot of money around the first few years, and then it will decide how to make he sharing of online courses work.

Another major issue is the deterioration of UC benefits.  Although UC in the past has been able to attract and maintain faculty and workers with relatively low pay because it has offered superior benefits, this is no longer the case.  With major reductions in retiree healthcare and a new pension tier, benefits have been reduced.  Furthermore, the new health plans have discriminated against one campus, UCSB, which does not have its own medical facilities or any hospital that is willing to be part of UC Care.  

UC has also moved many of its investments into alternative assets, but recent research shows that this strategy has backfired.  Due to the high fees associated with private equity and hedge funds, the UC might do better by simply investing in low-cost index funds.  Yet, in the pursuit of high returns, the university has continued to increase its investments in high-risk, high-fee investment vehicles. 

Another major problem is that even though tuition has remained flat for the last two years, very few people have looked at the total cost of a UC education. By pursuing an amenities race, UC, like other universities, has continued to increase the student cost for housing, dining, and services, and these increases fuel student debt.  Moreover, while there have been efforts to reduce the administration at the Office of the President, we continue to see administrative bloat on the campuses. 

Let’s hope that the new UC president has the foresight to address these pressing issues.