August 31, 2007

Commentary:

Will the University of California Serve the People?

By Jorge Mariscal

One of the more laughable media spins on the recent forced resignation of the University of California’s president claimed that Robert Dynes was “praised by women and minority activists for his push to diversify UC’s 10 campus system and by associates for his extraordinary intellect” (blackvoicenews.com). This sentiment is certainly not shared by those of us who battled with Dynes over equity issues during his tenure as chancellor of UC San Diego.

Long on rhetoric but strikingly short on meaningful action when it came to the abysmal numbers of African American and Chicano students at the La Jolla campus, Dynes stonewalled community activists at every turn. At one of his first public forums on diversity issues, Dynes appeared on stage with an armed campus policeman. No harm, no foul. But the symbolism was clear to anyone who bothered to notice. 

In 1998, he bestowed the ceremonial title “Chief Diversity Officer” on himself and proceeded to do nothing about long-standing problems that have plagued UCSD since its creation—low numbers of minority faculty, minimal funding for minority research, and a campus climate that is more corporate than educational. 

In 2003, shortly before Dynes was named president of the UC system, Dr. Walter Allen of UCLA visited La Jolla with a team of researchers and higher education specialists. After meeting with campus stakeholders over several days, the Allen group concluded, “more commitment was needed to have the UCSD campus represent the broader diversity of California.”

Because Dynes was given to delegating important issues regarding equal treatment for communities such as Latinos and African Americans that historically have been excluded from the university, the role of his vice chancellors became critical. When his underlings did nothing but further delegate “diversity” issues to lower level administrators, no one took charge and viable policy remedies were never formulated. Dynes failed to show leadership on reordering campus priorities and so UCSD’s endemic problems persisted.

Especially damning were his inability to assume a strong role in revamping the admissions process after the elimination of affirmative action and his refusal to intervene when minority faculty were unfairly denied tenure.

When local Chicano activists proposed an “Eligibility in the Local Context” admissions program in which the top 8% of local high school graduates would be admitted to UCSD, Dynes reluctantly agreed to 4% but privately allowed his assistants to institute a grade point average cut-off in order to limit the number of students accepted, thereby reproducing UCSD’s restrictive practices.

On his watch, three talented Chicano scholars were let go despite appeals to Dynes and his lieutenants from faculty colleagues, students, and the Chicano community. Today, those who were dismissed all have successful research and teaching careers at other universities.

Less than a week after Dynes’ resignation as president was announced, Richard Blum, the chairman of the UC Board of Regents issued a report titled “We Need to Be Strategically Dynamic,” in which he argued that the University suffered from “an overgrown administrative infrastructure that substitutes motion for progress.”

In fact, over the last 25 years the UC budget allocations in categories designated for administration have increased approximately 165% while those that support instruction has increased by only 64%. As tuition costs increase the burden on students and their families, high-ranking administrators and well-placed faculty cash in on the new corporate arrangement that allows inflated executive financial perks and private ownership of knowledge produced at public institutions.

The words of scholars Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades are especially relevant for the UC system during the Dynes regime: “As colleges and universities shift toward revenue generation through academic capitalism, they invest less in historic democratic missions of providing increased access and upward mobility for less advantaged populations of students.”

There is little reason to believe Dynes is sincere when he says real diversity is ”an area that should be of utmost importance to my successor and the overall leadership of the University of California” (Union Tribune, Aug. 16). If democratizing the university is of utmost importance, will his remaining months in office be spent visiting educators and families in communities of color across the state? 

No such luck. Instead, Dynes announced he will continue the process of corporatizing what was once a great public university by “promoting UC’s research, development, industry partnerships and international presence.” “Knowledge for the common good” is slowly being shoved off stage in favor of a bottom line ethos of “Show me the money.”

When it comes to the issue of how to fix the University’s troubled relationship to historically underrepresented communities in California, we would have to agree with the anonymous regent who told the Union Tribune: “I just don’t think Bob got it.” With Dynes out, there may be a small window of opportunity for meaningful change. Whether or not Regent Blum and his colleagues on the Board will be bold enough to reclaim the university for the people of California, however, remains to be seen.

Jorge Mariscal is Professor of Chicano and Spanish Literatures and Director of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.

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