Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The $23 Billion Question

Throughout this academic year, I have been arguing that while the state may have cut the UC’s total $20 billion budget by $600 million in the last two years, the university lost over $23 billion in its investment portfolio during the same time period. In fact, there has been a huge outcry over the reduction of state funds, but no one has questioned UC’s investment losses. It appears that people assume that since everyone lost money during the global fiscal meltdown, we cannot hold the university responsible for its investment decisions. However, a new study concerning the pension losses at six New England universities should make us re-open the question of how the UC lost so much money.

According to a new report by the Tellus Institute, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Boston College, Boston University and Brandeis University all embarked on a high risk investment strategy that has now resulted in reduced endowments, budget cuts, delayed construction projects, and job eliminations. Like the UC, these universities all followed Yale University's investment chief, David Swensen’s endowment model of relying on alternative assets such as commodities, real estate and private equity.

While this report only looks at the six New England schools, its findings can also be applied to many universities, including the University of California. As I have written, the UC also copied Swensen’s strategy of moving money from stable securities to high return areas. In fact, the UC is still following this advice, which is evident in the following statement from Moody’s regarding the university’s investments: ““The long-term targets for the endowment pool would bring alternative assets (including hedge funds, real estate and private equity) to 35% of the total, with domestic and international equity accounting for another 45% of total assets.” Instead of shying away from the high-risk Yale investment model, the UC is increasing its exposure to these volatile assets.

Like the UC, one of the driving forces behind these risky investments is the role of trustees or regents with conflicting business interests. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek article ,“The investment committee at Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire, included more than six trustees whose firms oversaw more than $100 million in investments for its fund over the last five years, the report said. Stephen Mandel, who is relinquishing his post as chairman of the school’s investment committee to lead the board later this year, originally managed $10 million for the school at his firm Lone Pine Capital LLC. . . . Other trustees who manage money for Dartmouth include Leon Black, with at least $40 million in his private-equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC, and William Helman, a partner at venture capital company Greylock Partners, the report said. Helman, who will take over the committee’s helm from Mandel, has received $10 million from the endowment.” These types of conflict of interest are evident in the UC system since many of the regents have major holdings in private equity, real estate, and construction.

As the UC union coalition told state senator Darrell Steinberg during Charlene Zettel’s conformation to be the next UC regent, we need to have employees on the pension board to make sure that the university’s investment decisions are not guided by the personal business interests of individual regents. Moreover, we need a full investigation into how the UC lost $23 billion during the global fiscal meltdown.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Can Make a Difference: UCLA Fights Back!

As we come to the end of this academic year, it is important to look back at some of the accomplishments of the student-faculty-union movement in the UC system. Since I am most familiar with the UCLA situation, I want to highlight some of our recent success, and what we might want to do in the future.

First of all, it is clear that our protests have had a profound effect not only in California but around the world. According to the governor’s chief of staff, it was the protests at UCLA during the November regents meeting that persuaded him to increase the funding for higher education. These protests were covered all over the globe, and many students have written to us saying that our actions helped to motivate them to get involved in fighting their own systems.

One of the targets of the UCLA actions was to reverse the layoffs of 67 continuing appointment lecturers at the College of Arts and Sciences. After several protests, union grievances, and private negotiations, all of these lecturers have been rehired. This means that many classes will not be cancelled next year, and students will be able to get the courses they need to graduate in a timely fashion.

Another important victory is that our coalition of students, faculty, and unions helped to put together a slate of graduate students to run for student government, and all of our candidates won. The new Public Education Party (PEP) will be a strong advocate for access, affordability, and quality at UCLA. In fact, the new GSA president has been an active participant in our protests, and he has used his legal expertise to make sure that students were protected during our actions.

While our protests did not result in stopping the fee increases, we are confident that we can build on our other successes to push for a freezing of fee increases next year. We also intend to keep the pressure on the university to increase student diversity and to provide funding for undocumented students.

In order to help shape our agenda for next year, we held an open Alternative Commission on the Future of the University at UCLA. One of the results of this meeting was to formulate a new vision for a more democratic university. We plan to continue to work on our vision and present it to the public. So far, we have concentrated on asking students if they endorse the Commission’s recommendations to move classes online and to create three-year degrees. We have also surveyed students to see what they think about multi-year fee increases, accepting more out-of-state students, differential fees, and eliminating majors. We hope to continue these research efforts and report our findings in the future.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the year is that people can make a difference, and it is important to fight for the system you want. Please join us this week at the regents meeting in San Francisco as we make our voices heard again.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Here’s The Future: A Virtual University of California

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees: Proposal for virtual courses challenges beliefs about what an elite university is—and isn't,” outlines the first real effect of the Commission on the Future of the University. According to the Chronicle, “Administrators hope the online plan will ultimately expand revenue and access for students at the same time. But the plan starts with a relatively modest experiment that aims to create online versions of roughly 25 high-demand lower-level "gateway courses." A preliminary list includes such staples as Calculus 1 and Freshman Composition.” In its effort to downsize undergraduate education, and hopefully turn a profit, the university hopes to place high-demand courses online.

While the initial project appears to be modest, this is only the first step: “UC hopes to put out a request for proposals in the fall, says Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs, and coordination. Professors will compete for grants to build the classes, deliver them to students, and participate in evaluating them. Courses might be taught as soon as 2011.” In other words, faculty will be motivated to sacrifice the future of their own departments in the quest of landing a grant to re-design their classes for the Web. In fact, the UC plans to offer a great deal of cash for faculty willing to enter the digital future: “The university plans to spend about $250,000 on each course. It hopes to raise the money from external sources like foundations or major donors.” One has to wonder why the university does not simply use the $6 million it plans to raise on funding existing programs; moreover, we have to examine what kind of deals does the UC plan to offer private and corporate sponsors of these new programs. Will Apple be able to fund a new iCourse, which would require students to purchase Apple products?

We also have to question what the turn to online education will do to the quality of instruction and the reputation of the UC system. As the Chronicle article reports, most elite universities have not pursued online courses because they are afraid of losing their elite status. After all, what differentiates the University of California from the University of Phoenix is the fact that in the UC system, students are brought to the same place to study with expert faculty and researchers. Furthermore, once courses are moved online, the value of a UC degree will be downgraded.

As someone whose specialization is the use of new media for the teaching of writing, I can attest that online writing courses actually increase the amount of work for the faculty. Also, due to the high cost of technology, staffing, equipment, and facilities, these programs end up costing a huge amount of money. Moreover, online education casualizes the academic labor force as it hurts student retention rates.

None of these factors seem to affect Berkeley’s Law School dean Christopher Edley Jr. who argues that, “"Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector—i.e., in the elite sector. . . I think it ought to be us—not MIT, not Columbia, not Caltech, certainly not Stanford." Perhaps Edley should spend some time pondering why the other elite institutions are not going down this path; however, he seems intent on forcing online education down the throats of resisting faculty and students.

In a very telling moment in the Chronicle article, we find the following passage: “Building a collection of online classes could help alleviate bottlenecks and speed up students' paths to graduation. But supporters hope to use the pilot program to persuade faculty members to back a far-reaching expansion of online instruction that would offer associate degrees entirely online, and, ultimately, a bachelor's degree.” We can read this statement as positing that the grants will offer faculty a large amount of money to design their classes for the Web, and once the faculty have bought into this process, the move will be to transfer as much of the instruction online as possible. Let’s hope the UC faculty resist these bribes—I mean grants.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Alternative Commission on the Future of the University at UCLA

On May 4th from 5-7 at Humanities 135, faculty, workers, and students will meet together for a public forum to discuss an alternative Commission for the Future of the University. The first hour will consist of presentations outlining specific recommendations, while the second hour will revolve around a democratic selection of the top suggestions. After this meeting, we will present our recommendations to the media and the Office of the President.

The central topics will be enrollment targets, student fees, online education, pension contributions, graduate education, diversity goals, summer instruction, language requirements, budget planning, and funding models.

Speakers will include members from the newly elected Graduate Student Association government, Toby Higbie (History, UCSB), Katherine King (Comparative Literature), Bob Samuels (UC-AFT), Teresa Avendado (AFSCME), Ali Cruz (Law Student), Holly Craig-Wehrle (Undergrad), and a representative of UPTE.

For a discussion of the commission's recommendations, click here and for UC-AFT alternative proposals, click here.

Please come and add your voice to the democratization of the university.