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Wendy Brown’s Speech to Regents on UCOF

Speech to the Regents on the UC “Commission on the Future” Report
December 13, 2010

Wendy Brown
Emanuel Heller Professor of Political Science
Co-Chair, Berkeley Faculty Association, UC Berkeley

Historically, UC has offered the unparalleled combination of premier faculty, path-breaking research, top-ranked graduate programs, and sterling undergraduate education available to the top 8th of California high school students. All of these are now seriously threatened by the state fiscal crisis and the Commission on the Future is to be commended for thinking hard about how to secure faculty, research and graduate programs amidst these threats. What it proposes to throw under the bus, however, is undergraduate education–both its access by California students and its quality. This is particularly evident in the recommendations to develop pathways toward 3-year degrees and on-line courses, and in the move to increase out-of-state students at the very moment when in-state students are losing the educational access promised by the California Master Plan.

No matter how you dress up on-line courses, they are degraded forms of instruction for most subjects and courses. Every serious student and teacher knows this. Apart from the notoriously high drop-out and cheating rates, the internet is a medium through which it is nearly impossible to incite innovative thinking or teach complex theoretical concepts in any discipline. Oral skills vanish from an on-line curriculum…just as they are vanishing from our culture, and writing is also nearly impossible to teach, just as its caliber is deteriorating among high school graduates. Students’ encounter with the sound and measure of important and difficult ideas is flattened into screen-scrolling and multi-tasking. In short, on-line ed can deliver information but it cannot build the critical skills, deep understanding, rich literacy and articulateness needed in the next generation of innovators, leaders, citizens.

Similarly, no matter how you sell a 3-year degree, it amounts to less education at the moment in history when more is desperately needed. Making extensive use of AP credits (high school courses taught by high school teachers, contoured to standardized tests), and summer classes (taught by grad students and instructors, not research faculty, and cramming semester-long courses into 5 weeks), this is a mode of accounting education by credits rather than development of the mind and student. Building pathways to 3-year degrees today will also exert tremendous pressure on the general UC curriculum tomorrow. If the 3-year degree is valued and prioritized as a cost-saving device for both parents and UC, reducing breadth and major requirements will inevitably follow suit. These fast-paced degrees will also discourage the taking of non-required courses and double majors, something particularly significant for students who combine arts and letters with pre-professional pursuits–pre-med, engineering, business….students who herald just what is needed in our future and what UC should be facilitating rather than foreclosing. Finally the 3-year degree path will place another wide notch in the ever-growing inequality among students in the new UC: poorer students will be compelled toward it while those with more means will be able to luxuriate in an education that will provide them with more advantages in every way–greater knowledge and skills, more intellectual range, better access to graduate and professional schools.

So, just when what we badly need innovative, literate, articulate, broadly and deeply educated citizens, the Commission on the Future is pushing UC to churn out narrowly and technically trained workers. It is also turning its back on the promise of equal opportunity UC has long stood for and is giving up the project of a generating a public educated for democracy. Indeed, given a future of on-line ed, compressed requirements and lecturers increasingly substituted for research faculty in the classroom, would you want your children or grandchildren to go to UC rather than Swarthmore, Brown, Amherst or even Northwestern or Tufts? The answer used to be “yes” because UC was committed to providing the best undergraduate education in the world. Now, however, as the increase in Non-Resident students and ever rising tuition coupled with lowered quality makes clear, undergraduates are being reduced to UC’s cash cows in support of other features of the university.

The brave and innovative thing to do at this moment of crisis would be to preserve undergraduate quality and access, along with research excellence, while trimming every other aspect of university operations, from expensive buildings and athletic facilities to optional student services to extraneous managers and staff. Let faculty take out their own trash, students run laps on dirt instead of cork tracks, associate vice chancellors fade away, administrators skip a salary increase or 2. Trim everything but access to and quality of education. Our students deserve no less and the future of democracy depends upon it.


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