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How We Survive: The ‘Crisis’ in Public Education


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UC Berkeley fee hike protest

On November 18, 2009, Students faculty and staff at UC Berkeley protested tuition fee increases by the UC Board of Regents. Photo courtesy MCT, via

State budgets are strapped and deep cuts to public programs continue.  No system is on the chopping block more than public education. On this edition, we continue our series, How We Survive. This week? It’s a time of crisis in higher education. And as administrators cast an eye toward privatization, students are mobilizing for change, and a voice in the system.


Zachary Levenson, UC Berkeley Graduate School student and TA; Mark G. Yudof, University of California President; Laura Nader, UC Berkeley professor; Bob Meister, UC Santa Cruz professor; Wael Elasady, Portland State University student & protest organizer; Jonathan Sanford, PSU’S student body president; Jim Francesconi, Oregon State Board of Higher Education Vice President; Zaki Bucherest, PSU student activist; Adam Sanchez, PSU graduate student & primary school teacher; Christopher Newfield, PhD, UC Santa Barbara Professor & author of ‘Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class’.

Some audio in this show was excerpted from the film “Occupied Berkeley: The Taking of Wheeler Hall” produced by David Martinez and Brandon Jourdon.

Beyond Wheeler: UC Voices for Education as a Public Good

The University of California system is known around the world as one of the most successful models of publicly-funded higher education. In 1960, UC President Clark Kerr spearheaded the groundbreaking California master plan for higher education, seeking to make a quality education accessible to all. Yet some 50 years later, some say the foundation of public education is being dismantled through fee hikes and corporate funding.  Making Contact’s Pauline Bartolone has more about UC Berkeley folks who are trying to stand in the way of privatizing what was meant to be public.

Portland State University, Inc. 

Like other states across the country, Oregon is struggling with the question of how to fund higher education in a time of massive budget cuts.  The Portland State University PSU, has increased class sizes, and made deep cuts to student programs and teacher pay. But recently PSU’s president proposed a new model to solve the university’s budget woes: incorporation. Jenka Soderberg from KBOO has more.

Author Offers a History of the Privatization of Public Education

From raising fees to privatizing entire universities, nationwide, there is a variety of ways that privatizing public college education is taking place. As we’ve heard, the dismantling of California’s public system has been going on for decades.  Dr. Christopher Newfield wrote a whole book about it. He’s a Professor of English at UC Santa Barbara and author of ‘Unmaking the Public University: the Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class.” He’s currently in France where he’s working for the Education Abroad Program for the University of California.

For more information:


National Education Association
Washington, DC

Portland State University
Portland, OR

Save Cal Now
Berkeley, CA

Solidarity Alliance

Articles, Blogs, Films, Reports:

‘Budget Cuts Dimming Bright Futures
By Laura Christmas, Tampa Bay Online

CUNY Campaign to Defend Education (CCDE)

‘Occupied Berkeley: The Taking of Wheeler Hall’
by Brandon Jourdon and David Martinez

Professor Christopher Newfield Blog

Recession Realities in Higher Ed (Blog)
By Ray Schroeder, Professor Emeritus University of Illinois at Springfield

Reclamations Journal

Remaking the University (Blog)

Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class
A book by Christopher Newfield


Episode Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] – This week on Making Contact–

  • The most important variable influencing class reproduction is education.
  • Is education a public good necessary for an informed people in a democracy, or is it a private good for the elite? This goes back to Jefferson.

  • State budgets are strapped, and deep cuts to public programs continue. And no system is on the chopping block more than public education. On this edition, we continue our series How We Survive. This week, it’s a time of crisis in higher education, and as administrators cast an eye toward privatization, students are mobilizing for change and a voice in the system.

I’m Tena Rubio, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

The University of California is known around the world as one of the most successful models of publicly-funded higher education. In 1960, UC President Clark Kerr spearheaded the groundbreaking California master plan that would make a quality higher education accessible to all.

  • The university is being called upon to educate previously unimagined numbers of students, to respond to the expanding claims of national service, to merge its activities with industry as never before. Characteristic–
  • Yet some 50 years later, some say the foundation of public education is being dismantled through fee hikes, layoffs, and corporate funding. Making Contact’s Pauline Bartolone has more about folks who are standing in the way of making corporate what was meant to be a public good.

  • When the massive 32% UC education fee increase was posed during summer break 2009, the fall semester started off with a bang. All 10 UC campuses staged a walkout.

At Berkeley, thousands rallied on the campus’s main Sproul Plaza, spilling into the streets. And that was just the inaugural event. Students organized in preparation for the November Board of Regents meeting when they’d be voting on the fees. Sociology PhD candidate Zachary Levenson was one of them.

  • God, I feel like I’ve never been in that many meetings in my life. It was hard to keep up academically. I barely slept. But it was fantastic. I mean, I’d never seen anything like this on an American campus.
  • For the three days the board planned to meet to approve the fee hikes, students and faculty planned another walkout in protest. But this time, the turnout was lower than they had hoped.

  • On September 24th, we had 5,000 people come out. So we were pretty anxious to see what the turnout was going to be. We assumed, of course, it would be larger. It was a huge turnout. It was fantastic. But I can’t say that the organizers weren’t a bit disappointed. I mean, I don’t want to speak for anyone else. I guess, myself, I was a bit taken aback to see that after that much effort, that 2,000 people come out.

  • The Board of Regents approved the fee hikes. Students in LA had it out with riot cops, and others occupied a campus building. So Levenson and over 100 people at Berkeley met to talk about their response.

  • As a body, we decided that escalation is necessary. I mean, overwhelmingly, people supported some form of direct action. So yeah, 43 of us ended up going inside Wheeler and locked the building down and occupied it.

  • Levenson and dozens of others blocked the doors inside Wheeler with chairs and waited for classes to begin. In a video documenting the occupation, the protesters are shown hanging banners from windows and speaking to people on the outside with bullhorns.

  • We have a 32% fee increase that we want immediately repealed. But you know what? We want a whole lot more than that. We want public education that is free. We want transparency, and we want democracy. We want to democratize the Regent.

  • You could say it was a spontaneously organized action. Some folks inside didn’t even know each other. They texted and called their friends to get them to come out for support and surround the building, and they did.

All in all, they were in Wheeler for less than 24 hours, and none of their demands were met. But to them, it was a success. It meant a new stage in the movement.

But these folks weren’t just protesting a more expensive education. There was something much larger that the students were fighting for. Levenson, as a PhD candidate, will come out of the fee hikes unscathed. He took the risk at Wheeler on principle.

  • Education is arguably the most important public good in addition to, of course, meeting kind of bare necessities and shelter and food and water. And maybe this is the sociologist to me speaking, or something, but if you look at any stratification research, I mean, again and again, the most important variable influencing class reproduction is education.

And so as soon as you close off public education, or any education for that matter, to a massive segment of the population, namely the working class, elements of the middle class even, and students of color, you shut them out of a certain kind of class reproduction process where these people are then excluded from a certain type of job, a certain type of white-collar position that I think a prestigious university, like any university in the UC system, allows you to obtain.

  • Levenson says he was protesting a trend that is changing the nature of public education in the US, a change enabled by the economics of the times.
  • We basically see the privatization of public education. These individuals high up in the administration have been using this financial crisis, which, of course, no one’s going to deny doing, no one’s going to say this crisis isn’t real, but they’ve been using this crisis to force their own agenda of the privatization of public education.

So this is amounted to mass layoffs, basically austerity measures, people who talk about structural adjustment imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s and ’90s as something happening over there, something in Africa or Latin America. It’s happening here.

And we see it in California, and it’s not just California. We see it– it’s happening in the University of Illinois system, the University of North Carolina system. I’ve talked to people organizing at Georgia State. I mean, the same thing’s happening all over the US.

  • Levenson and others say the problem is not just a lack of funding from the state. They’re concerned the UC system will use the fee hikes to back construction projects, not instruction.

But university officials tell a different story. After the Regents meeting in November, UC President Mark Yudof is shown in a video surrounded by media. He frames the decision to raise fees as something that they had no choice but to do.

  • Is there any way to avoid the fee increase for students?
  • I don’t think so. We’re down over a billion dollars. The state’s down another 20 billion. We’ve cut people’s pay, and we have laid off 2,000 workers. We have shut down libraries, or at least we don’t do the late hours. We have reduced our supplies, our travel. I’m sorry. I mean, this is a situation the students’ rightful expectations just exceed the resources of the University of California.

  • Yudof says students from families who make less than $70,000 dollars a year will not be affected by the fee hikes. And he pointed fingers at lawmakers in Sacramento.

  • You know, the problem is the master plan is sort of in tatters at the moment. I mean, it was a great plan. The students paid basically nothing to attend the university– high-quality education, research university, big chunk of poor kids, always at least a third. And the plan’s still a good plan. It’s the execution in Sacramento that’s the problem.

  • But some faculty don’t see the problem as just a financial one. Laura Nader has been a professor at UC Berkeley for nearly 50 years. She sees a crisis of priorities.

  • Every time they want to change something in this country, the powers that be call it a crisis. If it’s a crisis, it suggests that it’s just beginning to happen and they have to do something about it quick. But we have the Regents of the university for a purpose. They’re supposed to see ahead and take care of the university. But they haven’t been doing that.

  • Crisis mode is useful for government and corporations, serves as a justification for shifting gears–

  • Nader’s been active in the movement against the fee hikes. She spoke at a teach-in at the UC Berkeley campus about the budget crisis. She says there’s been a trend towards privatizing the university for decades.

  • My husband graduated from this university in 1952. His fees were $28 a semester. And it did increase little by little, but then big changes started to happen in the late ’80s, maybe earlier in the ’90s.

What it means is that you value knowledge on the basis of bottom line. You start to give more money to certain parts of the campus than others. You start to not build a natural history museum, but you build stem cell buildings here on the campus, whereas at UCSF they already have several buildings doing stem cell. You start to repeat.

Why? Bottom line– British Petroleum came in with half a billion dollars. They didn’t look at the consequences. They didn’t look at whether we needed biofuels more than good transportation systems, or they just took it because it was money.

They say, this is the bottom line, Laura. What do you mean? Half a billion dollars– you’re going to turn that down? You’re going to look at the consequences, I say. Your people are like dogs in heat. They see the money, and they go for it.

  • Bob Meister is a professor at UC Santa Cruz and served on the University of California systemwide Committee on Planning and Budget. He says a fee increase is part of a trend in debt-financed education. More debt, he says, will mean fewer people will be able to come out ahead.
  • What the university is doing now is no longer offering you an opportunity to get a higher education and improve your own life and conditions with no risk. It’s asking you to assume a fixed financial risk upfront in an economy where the benefits of getting a higher education are very uncertain, but where your willingness to take that risk is going to make you keep on paying for a long part of your life for the choice you make now.

President Yudof is trying to suggest that we’re merely followers, and this is happening everywhere. In fact, UC fee hikes, especially over the past decade and especially under Governor Schwarzenegger, have been much greater than elsewhere. So we’re actually leaders in the trend toward privatization. And these tuition hikes are going to make UC fall rapidly relative to a great many other publics.

  • We will win. But it’s going to take a while. I mean, this could take a couple years.
  • Zachary Levenson and others are organizing for an education systemwide strike on March 4th. No matter what happens on that day, he says their movement will continue to call for change in both the UC system and Sacramento.

  • First and foremost, this is a two-front war, and we could solve the problems in Sacramento, and it wouldn’t solve a damn thing. I mean, if UCOP and the Regents are using budget shortfall coming from Sacramento as an excuse to privatize the university, I don’t think solving the crisis in Sacramento is going to solve the thing.

  • Laura Nader says preserving public education requires good leadership, and a healthy democracy needs education that’s affordable and accessible.

  • Is education a public good necessary for an informed people in a democracy, or is it a private good for the elite? This goes back to Jefferson. So it’s a fight worth fighting because I think it has a lot to do with the quality of a democracy.

If you have uninformed citizens, you’re not going to have a very good democracy. You’re going to have a weak democracy. If we’re trying to spread democracy around the world, you have to be one to spread it.

So here we are at a time when the empire part of the United States is being discussed and criticized worldwide. The only good things we have were destroyed. It’s like we’re eating ourselves. Why would you destroy the one thing that the world thinks is the greatest thing we’ve got?

  • For Making Contact, I’m Pauline Bartolone.


  • We’ll be right back.

You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736.

Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts, go to We now return to How We Survive, The Crisis in Higher Ed.

Like other states across the country, Oregon is struggling with the question of how to fund higher ed in a time of massive budget cuts. Portland State University, or PSU, has increased class sizes and made deep cuts to student programs and teacher pay. But recently, PSU’s president proposed a new model to solve the university’s budget woes– incorporation. Jenka Soderberg from KBOO has more.

  • Portland State University is a bustling urban campus located in downtown Portland, Oregon. The students here are mainly a commuter population, and the campus is hardly a hotbed of student activism. But when University President Wim Wiewel went public with his proposal to address the university’s budget woes, students started organizing to oppose what they call a privatization scheme.
  • Who has the power?

  • We have the power!

  • What kind of power?

  • Student power!

  • Who has the power?

  • We have–

  • President Wiewel’s restructuring plan has two major components, call on the state to set minimum funding requirements for all public universities and turn the university into a public corporation. The latter is what’s rocking the boat.

At a rally outside the Student Union one Friday afternoon, more than 75 students gathered to say no to the proposed restructuring. Student [? Wile ?] [? al-Asadi ?] was one of the organizers of the protest.

  • This is not a solution for the financial challenges facing our higher education. We do not need a Wall Street exotic formula of leveraging that enacted by an unaccountable board of directors to fix our education system.
  • Whew!

  • Yeah!

  • Higher education!

  • But President Wiewel stands firm. Over the last 20 years, public funding for higher ed in Oregon has dropped 44% while public safety and prison spending has gone up by 50%. The result– increased tuition costs by almost a quarter for each student.

Wiewel says drastic times need drastic measures and believes incorporation is the only way to ensure a stable funding base for PSU. But Jonathan Sanford, PSU’s Student Body President, sees it another way.

  • Why isn’t he going to DC and saying, damn it, we need more teachers in our classrooms? Damn it, we need to pay our teachers more. Damn it, our students need to have enough funding.
  • President Wiewel cites Oregon Health and Science University as a success story. OHSU incorporated 15 years ago. This year, it’s facing a $30 million budget shortfall, and students are certain to pick up the remaining tab.

PSU students worry the same will happen to them. But Oregon State Board of Higher Education Vice President Jim Francesconi says students and opponents of privatizing don’t have to worry.

  • I think it’s fair to say that the university president would like the ability to raise tuition, and we haven’t yet decided how that’s going to work out. I suspect that there will be some guidelines placed upon it, if not by the legislature, by the board. But it’s an issue that needs a lot of discussion with the students, with the faculty, with all the stakeholders, and then, eventually, by the legislature and the board.
  • Right now, Oregon’s public universities are bound to state-legislated tuition caps. PSU in-state students pay $6,400 a year in tuition and fees. Without those state caps, they say shortfalls in funding are sure to hit their pocketbooks. But they say it’s not entirely about the money. Students say incorporating PSU will also change its overall character and mission.

Opening its doors in 1945, Portland State University’s origins are rooted in the city’s Black community. Catering at first to World War II vets, it quickly gained a reputation as the people’s university within the Oregon State University system and was known for its open admission process and inclusion of minority communities. Student activists like Zachy Bucharest worry incorporating will change that.

  • As far as I’m concerned, when you allow an institution to fall between the cracks of financial stress to the point of restructuring, it is nothing but an acknowledgment of a high level of financial mismanagement. The continual system of accruing debt and credit lines and requests for debt forgiveness has been allowing administration of universities, including our own, to follow up in cleaning house for specialty programs, cleaning houses and kicking them out and consolidating them, such as Black Studies, Chicano, Latino Studios, Native American Studies, and Women Studies, or programs that do not produce revenue for the university.
  • While incorporation of Oregon’s state universities is one option for dealing with the budget crisis, it’s not the only proposal on the table. Some administrators have brought up the possibility of turning Oregon universities into a system like the University of California where tuition forms the main basis of funding. That way, legislators can’t cap tuition as they do in Oregon.

But student activists have taken a different sort of inspiration from what’s happening in California. Adam Sanchez is a PSU graduate student and a primary school teacher.

  • We’ve seen the largest and the deepest cuts in California. And thankfully, they’ve been met with one of the strongest movements to defend public education that we’ve seen in this country, I think, since the 1960s but I think we have to spread that now outside of California.
  • Students rights under attack– what do we do?

  • Meanwhile, PSU students say they will continue to organize protests and lobby state legislators. A decision on PSU’s restructuring proposal could be approved by the state legislature as early as April. If approved, PSU students and opponents of incorporation fear the university’s focus will shift from quality and accountability to profitability.

For Making Contact, I’m Jenka Soderberg, Portland, Oregon.

  • We gotta build towards that plan to support the students in California because we’re facing the same cuts here.
  • Yeah!


  • From raising fees to privatizing entire universities nationwide, there are a variety of ways that privatizing public college education is taking place. As we’ve heard, the dismantling of California’s public system has been going on for decades.

Christopher Newfield wrote a whole book about it. He’s a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara and author of Unmaking the Public University, the 40-Year Assault on the Middle Class. He’s currently in France where he’s working for the education abroad program for the University of California. We caught up with him while he was in Turkey giving a lecture. Professor Newfield, thank you for speaking with us.

  • Thanks very much for covering this issue.
  • So let’s talk, then, about the funding of research and the funding of higher ed. As we all know in this country, education is in trouble. In this show, we actually profiled a couple of different ways education is being privatized. On the face of it, privatizing our educational system might seem like a good idea to some. But in your opinion, is it?

  • No. The great contribution of low-cost public higher education was mass access to high quality. That was the secret formula of University of California and, in a different way, of Cal State. And by that I mean that you would have a campus– starting with Berkeley and then expanding throughout the system– where you had cutting edge research, where you had internationally-renowned scholars. You had some of the most amazing thinking, the best poets, the best scientists, et cetera, working, and then the children of farm workers and the children of factory workers would go to lectures and have those folks grading their papers.

I mean, that was the vision, to have this contact between every element of society such that people that were first-generation college educated were immigrants, were low income, had access to the best that society had to offer. The best was not just reserved for a tiny elite.

When everybody has to pay, stratification increases, and the best gets reserved for a much smaller group. You see, all around the world, there is fabulous universities for 1% or 2% of the population.

  • Let’s talk a little bit about after graduation. So 2/3 of four-year college graduates leave with loan debt averaging about $23,000. That number is likely to increase if students can’t get the courses they need to graduate on time. So we’re hearing that some students might have to stay five, maybe six years. What implications does that have in terms of the choices students or people will have to make after they graduate?
  • Well, it means that they have to take any job they can get. It means the people will move out of socially valuable but lower paying jobs, like teaching, and social work, and nursing, and move into jobs that pay more. If somebody goes to law school and they graduate with $200,000 in debt, it means they will work in corporate law firms rather than working on sexuality issues for 58,000 a year. They literally can’t keep a roof over their head and pay their loans at the same time.

So it’s a loss to society. It’s a loss to the social value that is created by people who are not as well paid as folks in businesses that are about who do something that everybody needs.

  • And what do you think would happen if this country privatized their education?
  • We would lower the rate of college attainment, and we would become more ignorant than we already are. We would fall behind economically. We would have more social conflict. We would have less social understanding. All these things are already happening.

In California, the state fell from fifth in the nation to 47th in eight years between 1996 and 2004 in the rate of college continuation, that is, whether you not only start college but actually finish it, which is, of course, the crucial index of how you fare later on.

We don’t have an obvious direct causal connection between rising fees and that decline in educational attainment. But they did happen at the same time. There’s a strong likelihood of a correlation.

  • Well, in light of our current cuts to higher ed taking place across the country, what potential scenarios do you see for the future?
  • In the short term, I think that the Obama administration is going to pour the lion’s share of money into bank rescues and wars in the Middle East. So I’m not really that optimistic in the short run.

The higher education leadership in California has asked for direct operating funds to come from the federal government in partnership with the states. That’s not going to happen, I don’t think, because the federal government is now moving towards a commitment for supporting students fees through Pell grants and the expansion of similar programs.

So I think the short term is blocked. I think the medium-term people are going to have to become much more active in defining the kind of society that they want and where education is a central part of that. There’s a good grassroots network that already was put in place by the Obama administration. There’s a lot of skill out there around internet organizing and face-to-face organizing.

And I think that we– actually, in 2009, a major change took place, which is that for the first time in my adult lifetime, everybody figured out that cuts to public funding lower quality. People didn’t know that before, and elements in the UC administration had denied that that was the case.

And I think, finally, we have the foundation for saying, look, if you want the kind of golden age that we had before, or any [INAUDIBLE] of that, of greater social peace and understanding, greater cultural productivity and enlightenment, in the old sense, and economic growth of the old kind, you have to invest in higher education for the future.

My hope is that people know this now and that they’re going to restore and rebuild public higher education, continue to grow it, bring in folks that are currently shut out in much higher proportions, Latinos and African Americans in California in particular, and that we’ll get back on track.

We were on a good path in the ’60s and ’70s around these issues. And we forgot some of the gains that we made. They were incomplete, but they were good. And so I just see a lot of not return, but kind of a reimagination of where we can go happening in the next few years.

  • Professor Newfield– English professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of Unmaking the Public University, the 40-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today.
  • Thanks for having me.


  • That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Making Contact is supported by listeners like you. You allow us to continue to offer our programming for free to radio stations across the US and in Canada and South Africa. Thank you.

For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736 or check out our website at to get our podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work.

Lisa Redmond is our executive director, Pauline Bartolone producer and online editor, Andrew Stelzer producer, Khanh Pham associate director, Megan Martenyi and Elana Daigle production interns, Daphne Young station relations, Jen Gordon, Alton Byrd, Emily Allan, Alfonso Hooker, Ron Rucker, and Dan Turner volunteers. And I’m Tena Rubio. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.



Author: Radio Project

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