December 1, 2009
“Restructuring” the CSU or Wrecking It?
What Proposed Changes Mean and What We Can Do about Them
California Faculty Association
For nearly a decade, CFA has criticized the CSU Chancellor and the Board of Trustees for their failure to fight for the system or to challenge the political status quo that is threatening its vitality and its very future. Instead, we have seen quiet acceptance of every cut and public assurances that the CSU can “manage” every reduction. This public stance of the university’s leaders has made devastating state funding cuts seem acceptable and repeated huge tuition increases inevitable.
The cost of the past failures of administrative leadership in the CSU is enormous and undeniable.
The Chancellor’s most recent response to budget reductions is, however, failed leadership of another order. In these times of unprecedented cuts, the Chancellor and his administration are clearly not on a mission to confront elected leaders or even to educate the people of California about the costs of political choices made around the California budget; rather, they have embarked on a mission to “restructure” the university in ways that will profoundly affect the educational opportunities and experiences of Californians for generations to come.
What is happening is a “restructuring” of the CSU that goes far beyond “belt-tightening” in hard times and is, in fact, a radical change in the mission of the system. This profound shift in public policy concerning the CSU’s mission is proceeding rapidly with no public debate in any forum—not at the Board of Trustees, not in the legislature, and not with the people of California.1
The clearest expression of “restructuring” is found in an internal memo2 written by Benjamin F. Quillian, CSU Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer, and directed to campus financial officers. Dated Oct. 2, 2009, the memo requires campus administrators to report their plans for handling cuts to their campus budgets. The Quillian memo requested campus administrators to detail their plans for significant reductions in the faculty and staff workforce as well as drastic cuts in student enrollment.
The Chancellor emphasizes his commitment to reducing the number of students enrolled in the CSU by indicating that any campus exceeding its enrollment target will see its next year’s budget allocation reduced by an amount equal to the revenue generated from that enrollment.
Faculty and staff layoffs and reductions in student enrollment would be enough for us to worry about and for CFA to fight. The concluding paragraph of Quillian’s memo, however, suggests that what the Chancellor’s office really has in mind are changes even more drastic in scope and consequences. Writing in classically obfuscating bureaucratese Quillian says,
I urge you to think creatively and recognize that tinkering with reductions at the margins will be insufficient. It will be necessary to change radically business processes and service delivery systems so that personnel costs and other expenditures can be reduced significantly on an ongoing basis. Campuses need to collaborate and work together to reduce unnecessary duplications of effort and create synergies to leverage strengths and minimize weaknesses. Twenty-three independent plans will not get the job done. If we expect to continue effectively fulfilling the mission of the CSU, the budget reduction strategies must yield a fundamental transformation of the ways we meet the needs of our students, faculty and staff” (emphasis added).
Developments on some of our campuses reveal what this bureaucratic language means in managerial practice. Already individual campuses are preparing proposals to eliminate departments and programs (and attempts to move others to extended education) as well as drastic changes in admissions and remediation policies.
And each day seems to bring reports of more “campus conversations” about new proposals. For us to be effective at the campus and at the statewide levels, we need to understand what “restructuring” in the CSU now means and how administrators — exhibiting the cold, cost-benefit-analysis, profit driven, managed market model — are moving this project.
The Rhetoric of “Restructuring”: There is no alternative…and, they say, that’s a good thing
When historians look back on the last decade in the CSU’s history, one fact that will surely stand out is the utter lack of outrage—or even concern—publicly expressed by CSU administrative leaders in the Chancellor’s office or on the campuses. That fact alone is really quite stunning and certainly helps explain why the public is not up in arms about what is happening to California’s state universities. After all, if the people running the universities aren’t concerned, why should anyone else be?
Worse than their complicit silence are two strains of managerial rhetoric: one, that restructuring is an inevitability and two, that it is even a positive development for the CSU.
The notion that restructuring is inevitable—that there simply is no alternative—is a consistent theme in administrative commentary. In response to one of CFA’s many admonishments for the Chancellor to fight for the system, Reed was overheard at one Trustees’ meeting to exclaim, “Who is there to fight? There’s no money!” as if a higher power and not deliberate political choices such as tax cuts for corporations had produced the current situation.
Clearly, where there is political pressure and political will there is choice. And, there is money. After all, trillions of tax-payer dollars have been spent in just the past year on bailing out banks.3
Even starker are the comments of Hamid Shirvani, President of CSU Stanislaus, in a commentary surreally titled “Will A Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 18, 2009. Shirvani suggests that budget cuts to the CSU actually offer an opportunity to “reengineer education” in a way that reduces Californians’ sense of “entitlement” to a college education which, he says, “has driven expansion in higher education beyond what is reasonable or necessary” [emphasis added].
Shirvani underscores what he calls the “practical realities” that require wholesale change:
The economy has suffered changes so deep and fundamental that institutions cannot just hunker down to weather the storm. The time has come for creative reconstruction. We must summon the courage and will to re-engineer education…
Shirvani’s heroic tone in phrases like “creative reconstruction” suggests he believes (or would have his readers believe) that budget cuts are leading to positive changes in universities—no matter what students, parents, professors, or staff may think. By arguing that the demand for public higher education 1) is a problem, 2) has been fueled by Californian’s sense of so-called “entitlement” to that education, and 3) must now come to an end, Shirvani tries to reframe these staggering budget cuts as an opportunity to create his vision of a better, smaller university that does not waste resources on those who are not deserving enough.
But, what Shirvani calls entitlement has been a 50-year promise to Californians expressed in the Master Plan for Higher Education. Moreover, for the majority of our state’s students, it has provided the opportunity to thrive and to participate meaningfully in our democracy. Shirvani’s vision of a “reconstructed” university sends a chilling message to Californians that access to college degrees should be curtailed and the capacity of the state university must be permanently reduced.4
For those of us who work or learn in the CSU, Shirvani’s language is both infuriating and laughable. Deep sacrifices have been made by students, faculty, and staff and it is obvious that budget cuts have already undermined the quality of a CSU education and access to the state university for thousands. The very reason for the existence of the California State University is being lost.
But the power of this rhetoric in the world outside the university must not be underestimated. Arguments about reducing entitlements, creating leaner, more “efficient” institutions, and spending less have dismantled other public institutions; the danger, of course, is that the current economic crisis provides cover for the destruction of public higher education in California.
Fighting Back requires reorientation to reality
An important step in fighting back is for us to reclaim the discourse and to label administrative doublespeak for what it is.
As we all know, the changes being discussed on our campuses are not “creative transformations” or examples of bold “re-engineering,” but the destruction of educational programs that in many cases have taken decades to build. What is being destroyed, with the help of too many CSU administrators like Shirvani, are life-changing educational opportunities for the students and the communities the CSU serves.
In addition to challenging administrators’ managerial language, we must also expose the long-term social effects of the changes they propose. While it appears that each campus will have its own campus-specific plan to “transform” education, the examples being implemented right now make clear that these changes will have an especially negative impact on low-income people and communities of color and raise real questions about the civil rights implications of these actions. In fact, the provision of a broad liberal education for communities that might have no other access is at the heart of the CSU’s mission and at the heart of what is under attack.
We also must understand the pattern of the assault on our public universities in a broader historical and political framework. What is happening to us in the CSU is not new, and it is not unique. As Naomi Klein chronicles in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, crises of various sorts, from economic crises to natural disasters, have been used around the world for decades to strip down social programs, privatize government, destroy democratic institutions, and create enormous wealth for a tiny group of individuals.
Klein describes how proposals that would in normal times be considered outrageous can become proposals that seem inevitable. This has an eerie air of familiarity to those of us watching what is happening to our state and to our universities: “Like a terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect” she explains. (page 20)
In what she calls these “malleable moments,” when people are “psychologically unmoored” (page 25) because of a crisis, they will accept that some things—education, health care, even democracy—are just practical impossibilities. If the crisis is big enough, “it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency.” (page 175)
This paragraph helps us to understand so much about what is going on in California and in the CSU now. Like other “shocked societies” in which “populations go limp,” (p. 184) Californians are watching educational opportunities for their own children evaporate without a fight because they have been led to believe that “it’s inevitable” and that “there is no alternative.” Faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of bad news about changes on our campuses that just “can’t be helped,” faculty experience that same sense of futility and paralysis. We too are “shock doctrine” victims in more ways than one.
Education & Action are the Antidotes
In addition to helping us comprehend what is happening to us, Klein also helps us understand how we can shake ourselves out of our passivity and break the stranglehold that “shock therapy” has on us. As she points out, the doctrine’s power depends on lack of awareness and understanding:
A state of shock, by definition, is a moment when there is a gap between fast-moving events and the information that exists to explain them…Without a story, we are, as many of us were after September 11, intensely vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends. As soon as we have a new narrative that offers a perspective on the shocking events, we become reoriented and the world begins to make sense once again.
The antidote to the shock doctrine, like to so many other social ills, is education. And the understanding and analysis that education provides is the necessary precursor for collective action. This two-pronged project must be the work of the California Faculty Association in the coming months—the education of ourselves, our students, and our fellow Californians about the unfolding attack on the CSU and action in concert with others throughout the state to fight for its mission and its future.
Development of a counter-narrative can lead us toward recovery for ourselves and for our universities.
Please contact the California Faculty Association with questions or for printed copies of this paper at (916) 441-4848 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1 The California State University Mission Statement is a short, inspiring document that is meant to guide every decision made about the system. We urge supporters of public higher education to read it in the appendix to this white paper or view it online at
2 Benjamin F. Quillian, CSU Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer, Memo dated Oct. 2, 2009. View it on the CSU web site at
or on the California Faculty Association web site at
3 CFA supports legislation that would direct funding to the CSU. It got passed a state resolution calling for “federal bailout” money for public higher education and is pushing in the state legislature for AB 656 to apply a fee on oil companies that would be dedicated to public higher ed, similar to programs in Texas and Alaska.
4 Ironically, just as Shirvani declares access to higher education “unnecessary” in many cases, President Obama has called for more people in every stratum of society to pursue post-secondary education in all its forms. For a compelling contrast with Shirvani, see the president’s remarks on higher education last April at
when he noted “…if you don’t have a college degree, you’re more than twice as likely to be unemployed as somebody who does. So the stakes could not be higher for young people…”
For more on the necessity for higher education to the state of California’s economy, see Public Policy Institute of California,
, or see Tom Mortenson, higher education policy analyst, at
(Importance of Higher Education).