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People’s Park and the Future of the Public University

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Images of police officers clearing and enclosing People’s Park on 4th August for the construction of student housing had uncanny echoes of Ronald Reagan’s use of state violence to try to reclaim the park as university property in 1969.  These parallels raise fundamental questions about the dilemmas all public universities in the US face in the twenty-first century. They also allow us to assess the route taken at UC Berkeley where Carol Christ begins her sixth, and possibly final year, as Chancellor..  

Expanding enrollment and increasing the campus’ capacity to house its growing student population has been a major goal of Chancellor Christ as it was with her predecessors. In 2012/3, UC Berkeley had 35,346 students. Last year there were 43,932, and the campus plans to enroll 51,201 students by 2029/30.  While growing enrollment is presented as part of a public university’s mission to increase access to higher education, the proportion of students from underrepresented communities has only risen by 6 per cent since 2012.  

In reality, admitting more students serves the goal of increasing tuition revenue, helping the campus to offset the calamitous decline of state funding, which has been under way for decades but has accelerated since 2008.   Since 1990, state funds per student at UC Berkeley have declined by 38% in real terms, while enrollment has grown by 47%. It is surely not coincidental that state disinvestment has occurred as the campus has ceased to have a predominantly white student body.  The state now provides just 12% of UC Berkeley’s funds, about the same percentage generated by fundraising, while tuition revenue accounts for 31% of the campus’ revenue. 

With a tuition-driven revenue model driving growth in the student population, housing becomes critical in several ways.  Providing housing is an important factor in recruiting students, and at present UC Berkeley only offers accommodation to 30% of its students, with 15% forced to commute over ten miles, and 5% adding to the Bay Area’s chronic homelessness problem as ‘housing insecure’.   By its own calculations the campus needs 8,800 new beds to meet its projected enrollment growth. 

As a land grant campus that also benefited from post-war federal programs to purchase land by eminent domain at below market rates (as it did with the land at People’s Park), the university is the largest landowner in the East Bay.  Its tax-exempt status makes the university an unusual private landlord not subject to property taxes. ​​Although the campus has identified 17 acres of land it can develop student housing on, it faces a series of complex legal challenges to do so.  In addition, despite calling its real estate arm “Capital Strategies,” the campus lacks the capital to build on these sites.  Moreover, it can no longer debt-finance construction, as its bond ratings have not recovered from the construction costs of Memorial Stadium which saddled it with an initial debt of $457 million that with interest payments will rise to a $1.25 billion obligation over the next hundred years

In the face of these challenges, the campus has turned to public-private partnerships to develop student housing on its land.  Over the past decade, almost all new student housing has been based on a model where the campus leases land to a private developer to construct, maintain, and operate dorms.  It is meant to be a win-win situation, where the campus has no costs while developers can raise loans for construction based upon the future income from student rents and auxiliary services.  These private companies are not obliged to negotiate with powerful campus unions and can instead employ non-unionised workers to cook, clean and provide security.  Most of those workers are people of color and women.  With rents and meal plans for these dorms ranging from $16-22,000 a year, they are beyond the reach of many students and help push up rental prices in the private sector, aggravating the housing crisis in the Bay Area, to say nothing of the gentrification of areas like west Berkeley that were once predominantly black neighborhoods. 

All of this is a far cry from the original vision of a state-supported public university, let alone the radical ambition of People’s Park. Public universities were created to educate students for the public good, not to do so while allowing private companies to profit from using property they have claimed as tax-exempt public lands.  The founders of People’s Park took the claim of the university as a public space seriously. They envisioned People’s Park as a truly public space that could not be bought or sold, a commons that could not be enclosed by the campus, whether for athletic facilities–the initial plan–or for student housing. It was the audacity of that vision that led Reagan to try and close the park down.  Fifty years later, it appears that enclosure has finally been enacted–by a campus claiming the enclosure is necessary to support its public mission.  

While there are some neighborhood groups that question whether more high-density housing is appropriate for Berkeley, most of those involved in opposing the construction of campus dorms only question where and how that housing is provided, and at what cost, so that it does not exacerbate the problems it purports to solve.  The housing crisis at UC Berkeley is real not just for students–both undergraduates and graduate students–but also staff and faculty.  Housing costs are one of the largest impediments to the campus efforts to recruit the best staff and faculty. Younger faculty with families,  particularly those from minoritized communities with fewer family assets, face an almost impossible task to afford housing even on the rental market. 

And yet housing is not the only bottleneck that threatens the endless growth strategy of UC Berkeley Chancellors. As more and more students come to campus, they invariably find degraded conditions for learning.  Most obviously, they are less likely to be taught by Senate faculty on the tenure track; if they are, it is more likely those classes will be very large.  Since 1990, the number of Senate faculty has declined by 9.6%, forcing the student-to-faculty ratio to rise from 18-1 to 30-1 by 2020.  The campus had hoped to reverse this ratio through fundraising, despite the danger that donors might seek to influence what research and teaching is done on campus. But one of its largest philanthropic campaigns has as yet only yielded 27 new positions from a projected 100.  

Where Senate faculty are paid to combine world-class research with teaching, over the past decade their work in the classroom has been steadily outsourced to those designated Lecturers. The number of lecturers has grown from 637 in April 2011 to 1,029 in April 2021. They now teach 40% of student credit hours on campus. While Lecturers are often fabulous teachers, they are not contracted to conduct research and, unlike Senate faculty, few have security of employment.  Severing the connection between research and teaching, once critical to the mission of Berkeley as a public university, has reduced costs of instruction at the expense of the precarity of instructors..

Other material conditions of undergraduate learning are under just as much strain.  UC Berkeley is a campus where the majority of buildings were constructed before 1980;  many are in a state of disrepair and seismically unsafe. It is estimated that the bill for bringing those buildings up to standard is $8.5 billion. Quite apart from their safety, many classrooms on campus are over-crowded, poorly maintained, and lack suitable ventilation– especially important in the Age of Covid. There are also simply too few of the large classrooms needed to run the most popular classes on campus.  Recognizing these constraints, the campus is considering revisiting some old and unsuccessful solutions like the expansion of online education and the development of satellite campuses through more public-private 'partnerships' on land it owns at Moffett Field in Santa Clara and in Richmond. 

None of this will address the systematic underfunding of the beating heart of the university’s teaching and research mission - its library.   Recognizing how damaging a previous decade of cuts had been to staffing and collections, the campus convened a Commission on the Future of the Library with outside experts in 2013. Although the campus accepted the Commission’s recommendation of a ‘permanent’ annual funding increase of $13m, as well as an additional one time injection of $5m, it never delivered on that promise.  Last year the library was given 5% or $2 million less than it received in 2009, despite the 27% increase in student enrollment and more than a decade of escalating subscriptions costs. So bad is the library’s plight that they have asked faculty for donations.  Meanwhile, campus continues to support Intercollegiate Athletics to the tune of over $25 million a year despite repeated resolutions from the Academic Senate that priority should be afforded to academics not athletics.

Finally, as increasing numbers of students have to navigate the complexities of such a large campus, they are doing so with fewer academic support staff.  No less than 400 staff positions have been cut since 2015, even as the number of students has risen quickly. Unsurprisingly, those staff who remain are often overwhelmed with work and burnt out.  

In short, the privatize-to-grow model promoted by Chancellor Christ is simply unsustainable.  It has structural contradictions that it cannot overcome; the revenue streams that can be generated by student tuition, philanthropy and commercial income (including from real estate) are simply inadequate.  The rhetoric of accessibility is being used to leverage forms of private revenue that often damage the very public the university  claims to serve. Tuition, housing and the ‘self-help’ contribution of over $10,000 a year that all students pay (regardless of household income) plunge poorer students into debt. Those students meanwhile are paying more but getting less as the quality of instruction they receive is degraded by escalating ratios of faculty and staff to student and the inability to provide quality classrooms and library facilities.  The construction of student housing by public-private partnerships that need to charge high rents to service their loans and accumulate a profit helps drive up rental costs in the city as a whole.    

At a time when calls for debt-free higher education have grown across the USA, there is an alternative to this failed model.  Perhaps the next Chancellor of Berkeley will embrace a campaign for public over private funding of the University.  To do so they will need to forget the Berkeley exceptionalism that propels their fund-raising efforts. Instead they will mobilize with not just the other UC campuses but those of the Cal State and Community College systems to argue for state reinvestment in all public higher education in the state at a moment when there is a vast budget surplus.  Rather than selling higher education as an expensive, debt-fuelled, personal investment, we could all take responsibility for investing in the future of our state’s population.  If the median taxpayer in California contributed an additional $66 a year, it would refund all of higher ed in CA to its level in 2000 when it could still just about deliver a high- quality and debt-free education.  This is the ambition and the vision we need to save a truly public university.

Berkeley Faculty Association

The Berkeley Faculty Association is the independent and progressive voice of Senate faculty at UC Berkeley. Its mission is to defend shared governance, academic freedom and the public character of UC Berkeley.