Greetings from São Paulo where I am on sabbatical this semester. I read the BFA memorandum with appreciation for its many fine points, with which I am mostly in agreement. It seems to me, however, that while these points are all relevant, there is a fundamental problem with the campus Strategic Planning Process at the very outset: for the campus body of faculty, students, and staff (excluding “high-level” administrators), this process is overwhelmingly one of consultation and not of binding decision-making. It’s like the call from City Hall for comments from residents on urban planning issues that gets gussied up as “community participation in government.” The comments are never binding (no deliberative process) and city councilors make their decisions regardless of the “input” from residents. So, on the basis of a rational calculation of cost-benefit, most people don’t waste their time to “participate.” At Berkeley, we call our sibling “shared government.” The FBF memorandum emphasized the issue of independence of the Senate, but the underlying problem is one of power: who decides and on what issues. We can take any number of examples to illustrate the fundamental irrelevance of the Senate and the farce of “shared government.” As the memorandum puts it, the issue is “faculty [but I would argue not only faculty] involvement in determining what are those major challenges.” In that regard, I would have hoped for a stronger confrontation with the Administration on their entire conception of the “Strategic Planning Process.”
Nevertheless, I want to let you know about an alternative strategic planning process imagined by another university. I’ve been hired in São Paulo to advise the Chancellor’s Office of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) in planning and implementing the process of determining its new master plan — a strategic planning process for what they call the Plano Pedagogico Institucional (PPI). What’s really interesting, daring, and innovative is that the Chancellor’s Office is committed to carrying out this strategic planning using a process of radically direct democracy at the scale of all 6 campuses of the university system (spread throughout the metropolitan region of São Paulo) in which its population of 25,000 faculty, staff, and students will decide (not merely consult) on the substance of the new master plan — oriented, it must be said, by a number of suggested and predetermined “axes” of consideration. It will entail a 10-month process of elaboration, deliberation (consensus and dissensus), collaborative editing, and voting on proposals. This is quite an interesting experiment is direct democracy, addressing basic questions of scale, power, community, membership, motivation and so forth that have historically plagued it. We have developed a “social model” involving a combination of face-to-face and digital assemblies and an elaboration of the software platform that I developed for Vallejo’s process of Participatory Budgeting. (Did you know that Vallejo’s PB uses the software platform, AppCivist, that my Social Apps Lab developed for democratic assembly and collective action?) In any case, I think the social model and the information technology we’ve developed are both complex enough for the challenge. But we are launching next month and will only know more in the next six.
It’s really disheartening that there doesn’t seem to be any trace of radical thinking in Berkeley’s Administration, when that is precisely what we need to break from the serial disasters of the past couple of decades. That I’m finding it in the “periphery” is exciting, though not unexpected.
As national democracies crumble, this is perhaps a time for municipal democratic innovation. Universities could lead through innovations in strategic planning, reinventing direct decision-making (nothing like plebiscites as we know them) and democratic assembly (certainly not like the Berkeley Senate). I’ll be back in the fall and would be happy to share my experiment at Unifesp with the BFA, if there might be interest. Probably Berkeley’s “campus consultation” will be over by then, but it still might be useful to discuss a real alternative (if indeed that is what actually happens at Unifesp).