rethinking-bob-meister-0042-1024x682Last week we ran the first part of a long interview with Robert Meister, Professor of Social and Political Thought in the Department of the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This week we pick up the conversation closer to home, namely Meister’s work at his home campus — a truly unique site in the landscape of higher education for its utopian design and idyllic setting, in a redwood forest overlooking Monterey Bay — and as head of the Council of UC Faculty Associations. Meister has been a persistent and perceptive critic of the privatization of California’s once-great public university system. A good example of Meister’s clarity can be found in this video from a 2009 teach-in concerning the interlinked logic of proposed tuition hikes (remember, this was the height of austerity fever), proposed furloughs for employees, and selective construction projects in the UC system.

I recently completed a dissertation on the “Crisis of the Modern University,” and for whatever my professional opinion is worth, Robert Meister is an essential voice for anyone hoping to better understand the history and precarious future of higher education in the United States. This interview will give you a sense of why I hold his writing and work on colleges and universities in such high regard.

Michael Schapira: I just spent some time in Santa Cruz, so I wanted to talk about the University of California system and UC Santa Cruz in particular.

Robert Meister: I’ve been there for forty years, so you’ve come to right person.

In Uses of the University Clark Kerr talks about the multiversity combining the best of the German research university, the best of the English liberal arts model, and best aspects of American entrepreneurialism. Santa Cruz was meant to be part of the system as a beacon of UC’s commitment to undergraduate education, given the increased scale of enrollments as laid out by the California Master Plan (CMP). Do you think there was something salutary in the way that the UCSC experiment approached the growing imbalance between research, or graduate education, and undergraduate education, or the liberal arts tradition? Do you think that there can be something extracted from this initial period given that this pure college model is something that has been subsequently deemphasized at UCSC?

[Laughter] I suppose my laughter is part of the answer. When I was the chair of the campus budget committee, our then chancellor hired a management consultant to advise her on how UCSC could raise private funding by capitalizing on its advantages. The consultant said that our principle advantage was a loyal and successful alumni base from our early years who were still absolutely devoted to the college system — which had ceased to have any academic role in the way UCSC reorganized after it stopped growing by adding new colleges. That model was dead, so the consultant recommended that we turn one or more of the now-vestigial colleges into burial plots-with-a-view that could be sold to rich alumni who believed in the college system and still wanted to support it. I was willing to support this recommendation, but with the addition that we rename the college “Sunset College,” so that you could look west over the Pacific and contemplate your own sunset along with that of the college model. Despite my enthusiasm, the idea of colleges-as-graveyards was dropped and the chancellor said I hope you won’t mention this to anyone else — but here it is.

Going back to your question on the college model, Dean McHenry, who created my position as a junior faculty member to fill the gap left by the departure of Sheldon Wolin to Princeton, envisioned that Santa Cruz would grow and develop graduate programs slowly as the University of Oxford had, but in a way that was more deliberate and creative. Instead of competing with other new campuses to buy up the latest disciplinary fads, we would add college each year that defined an interdisciplinary model and that had as provost an interdisciplinary leader. In McHenry’s vision the science college would have someone like Ken Thimann as its first provost, an eminent interdisciplinary biologist, followed by Stephen Toulmin, who arrived when I did but didn’t last more than a year. The idea was that the provost in a science-themed college would develop an interdisciplinary faculty of scientists who were interested in the history and philosophy of science, alongside philosophers who were trained like [Thomas] Kuhn in the sciences in which they did their philosophy, and so on and so forth. Eventually, UCSC would develop more traditional disciplinary programs out of cross-college committees — we called them “Boards of Studies” — consisting of people from different disciplines who would set examining standards and course requirements for degrees in those disciplines that would be awarded by the campus, but through the student’s college.

So Stevenson College would award a degree in “modern thought and society,” Cowell in a kind of classical humanities, the third college Crown in philosophy and history of science, and so on, but they would also award degrees as determined by the Board of Studies in Politics, History and other standard fields. There would thus have been undergraduate majors arising gradually through the accretion of colleges and the overlap between them, and graduate programs that could be either disciplinary, arising from the majors, or interdisciplinary, arising from the colleges. This was the institutional structural constraint under which the university was built.

It pretty much ended with Dean McHenry’s departure, which coincidd with the decision by the College 8 faculty to reject its site and its funding and ask for time to reconsider, in an era where slowing growth to reconsider your options was considered itself to be a progressive step in avoiding the excesses that came with growth. Did we really want to grow to 25,000 as opposed to 13,000 when we were currently at around 3,800? Did we want to stop at 7,000? How do you begin to think about new graduate programs in these terms?

The serious problem that Santa Cruz has had ever since is that it has the lowest graduate to undergraduate student ratio of any UC campus. It developed excellent programs in writing and in languages by hiring specialized regular faculty, often non-tenure track, but permanent faculty in those fields, and not using TA money to support expository writing or language instruction as it would be done at other campuses. The result was that we had a much lower ratio of graduates to undergraduates than any other UC campus. If you read Dean McHenry’s memoirs from around this time you’ll see his fury when Clark Kerr, who had been McHenry’s roommate at Stanford, bowed to pressure from Berkeley and UCLA to change UC’s internal formula for allocating state money to the campuses so that graduate students were funded at a much higher rate than undergraduates. This undermined the funding assumption under which the CMP was originally written and implemented, which is that state money generated by enrollment growth would go to campuses on an equal per student basis, which is how the money comes in. (Dean McHenry, as Clark Kerr’s provost in the UC system, was the principle author of the CMP and was given the Santa Cruz campus and some freedom to experiment as his reward).

So Santa Cruz has always had a too-low ratio of graduates to undergraduates that has put it on the cusp on not being able to justify being funded as a UC campus, because at the time of the Master Plan UC campuses had 25-30% graduate students. By the 1980s and 1990s on the whole it was about 16%, and Santa Cruz was at 7 or 8%, the lowest in the system. When it then grew almost entirely by expanding undergraduate enrollment the funding disadvantage compounded. 

When Dean McHenry was envisioning UCSC he visited newly established and experimental colleges in the U.S. and England. There were places like Antioch, New College in Florida, or Evergreen State (founded soon after UCSC), which showed a period when there was still an enthusiasm for experimentation in American higher education. In UCSC’s case it was backed by the CMP, so it was given a kind of institutional guarantee and a space in which to conduct these utopian experiments that Dean McHenry had in mind. Do you think that this utopian or experimental ethos is something that is still valuable today, or whether there are attendant dangers because it no longer has the support of something like the CMP and most of it is being done by private interests — say in MOOCs or forms of globalized education?

Let me start with an example — our narrative evaluation system. As an instructor the great thing about the narrative evaluation system is that you could teach your course as though the students in it were taking different courses. Without any unfairness at all you could evaluate them each for the courses that they took rather than in comparison with each other. So in my early years I would have wonderful students, friends of the students I had in political theory who would come to my class and then go on to MIT or Princeton in physics or whatever, and the course would be in part a dialogue between them and the students who had read everything there was to be read in political theory and were senior to them in the field. One year, when I was the Legal Studies chair, I asked someone at the UCLA Law School why they didn’t take more Santa Cruz students. What he said to me was very interesting. He said, referring to the narrative evaluation system, “we know who your great students are. These are the students who are going to go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, wherever. But we can’t distinguish between a B+ and a B- and we can’t tell whether a student has improved.” In other words he couldn’t measure spreads and gaps the way we do in a grading system. This was a system which benefited the best students, and it really did, in a way that disadvantaged the middle range students whose CVs depend upon showing comparative development rather than some absolute intellectual achievement of some kind.

So we had a wonderful system, in the sense that many of my students have gone on to stellar careers in academics and in their various professions, and we had a system that gave a wonderful terminal education, a really positive experience to most students who went there. For the middle range of students, however, a lot of the value of the UC education professionally had to do with the value of UC’s relative ranking, which is to say the value of having gotten into a selective place. When I first came to UCSC it ranked in test scores and grades right up there with Swarthmore. It was the first choice of people applying who got in and was really the first choice ahead of Berkeley in the UC system for those who thought of themselves as interesting. It was good in that way, precisely because having gone there was in itself an achievement, and students were proud of this.

I don’t know whether the campus outgrew its vision, or whether it outgrew its market base. But by the time it grew to 6,000 students it was the first choice of students for whom it wasn’t the last choice. At that point the narrative evaluation system that treated all courses as equal and every student as though they were taking a different course became an expression of the fact that we now had a bi-modal student body. We didn’t have that many average students relative to the rest of UC, so we became a campus that became known not for imposing high minimal standards and testing to them, but rather a campus in which students could achieve great things, but weren’t required to achieve a high minimum standard. They could choose their courses, majors, and programs, depending on whether they wanted the kind of education that was actually more demanding than what you could require at an Ivy League undergraduate school, or whether they were choosing a good undergraduate experience that they would remember for the rest of their lives in the way one might remember, say, a luxury cruise.

At that point the narrative evaluation took on a different significance. It became a system in which everyone was happier than they were at other colleges because they all read their evaluations as A minuses.

That’s interesting, because outgrowing the market for UCSC students is one way the system may have broken down, but changes in how young people approach their undergraduate study is a different way that UC can’t necessarily account for.

Right. The great thing about the narrative evaluation system pedagogically was that no student felt pigeonholed, because you could write the evaluation in a way that appreciated the strengths a student perceived they had in the course and what value they thought they got out of it, while at the same time in a comparative perspective not misleading anyone on the outside into thinking that this was one of the top students in the course. However, it became a system in which we were fooling our own students in a way that was pedagogically desirable for us because they remained teachable, but that may have misled some students about how well they were doing…

Let’s skip forward and talk more broadly about the UC system. How long were you the head of the Council of UC Faculty Associations?

It was either 15 or 17 years, but I just stepped down in August 2013. CUCFA is the labor union for tenure track faculty in the UC system.

When the CMP was written it tiered the system into the University of California, California State, and Junior and Community Colleges, guaranteeing tuition free education. When was tuition introduced, because we should get into why that has become such a central component in understanding the UC system.

The one element that is essential and isn’t often mentioned — you didn’t mention it either — is that it guaranteed, or at least provided (guaranteed is debatable), tuition free education at all three levels, but each level triggered a different level of state expenditure. This was justified in part by the ratio of upper division to lower division undergraduate education at each level. Community colleges were lower division, and it was considered to be important that students who went to a campus with upper division education (CSU) got a budgetarily superior education, and that undergraduates who went to a campus with graduate students (a UC) got an even larger state subsidy. (At the time of the CMP UC Berkeley was about 25-30% graduate students). So your choice triggered a higher level of subsidy for your free tuition. 

From a political standpoint, that’s the key question driving the CMP system — how you justify the differential subsidy for undergraduates. You start with equal entitlement to a free education, and you then justify the differential subsidy partly on the basis that the education is different qualitatively at the different levels. If a student is exposed to research level faculty and the graduate students who are attracted by them, graduate students who become their closer peers and interlocutors, then the quality of undergraduate education is different.

This is not far-fetched. NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) studies really do show empirical convergence between the level of student commitment that exists at a liberal arts college in the first two years and the level of commitment that exists at a research university at the end of four years — we’re talking here about the students’ level of intellectual engagement. The key variable in bringing the convergence is not the faculty-student ratio, which applies over all four years in the private liberal arts colleges, but the graduate student to undergraduate ratio. The higher the graduate to undergraduate student ratio the higher the level of engagement of undergraduates by the last two years. This, then, becomes a rationale for combining undergraduate education with a research university, as the great state systems do.  

So you could justify the differential expenditure on undergraduates at UC by a combination of the quality of the faculty and the intensity of the interaction between the graduate and undergraduate students attracted by those faculty, which brought undergraduates into an intellectual life in the way that they might be at an Oberlin, Reed, Amherst, Williams, or Swarthmore. 

The great substantive vision of Clark Kerr, whom I didn’t know, and Dean McHenry, whom I did know, without actually the empirical basis for it, was that this kind of intellectual impact of the best private research universities and the best private liberal arts colleges could be synthetically produced by a public university system in a scalable way. This was a hugely attractive idea, because insofar as you are talking about people getting something that they don’t yet know they want, and which they don’t know how to describe, the idea of free public higher education becomes itself the name of a political desire in California. The public university in California is not merely a meansof acquiring credentials, it’s not merely a a way to gain recognition, it’s also a path to being changed in a way that you can’t anticipate or predict by the intensity of your involvement in the educational experience. Making it free so that you could actually be involved in it with that kind of intensity was part of creating the desire, which was in turn part of creating the prestige of the system, which in turn started to make your admission to the system valuable as a form of recognition, as a form of acquiring professional legibility. But it’s important to understand that the desire for public higher education not just about prestige, and that the prestige of the public itself comes in part from the desire to have been changed by one’s education. In California belief in the goodness of our state universities is best understood as a civic religion, which makes it difficult when faculty like me and Chris Newfield try to tell the public that its universities have become worse.

That’s interesting you say that because following Christopher Newfield’s book [Unmaking the Public University], you can point to a period where the benefits that were purported to be offered by this — professional recognition and new ways to find oneself — were achieved and produced a more inclusive middle class that diversified the power structure in California and in the U.S. This is what was targeted beginning with the culture wars and continuing today, when you see issues of access and the intensity of the educational experience that you were just describing starting to tip towards more individualistic approaches to education, and finally moving over to a entrepreneurial model or a consumer model. Could you move the story forward and talk about how the initial vision has been subverted from the culture wars until now, following Christopher Newfield’s chronology.

To address your question directly, during the 1950s and 60s people who thought of higher education thought of it in a world of converging incomes, especially about undergraduate degrees, but to some extent also in medical and legal education. It was less as a matter of attaining credentials to which a cash value could be attached and more as a matter of finding direction, of acquiring a speciality, of determining something that you would want to do for the rest of your life. Kierkegaard wrote Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Well, in those days you would write a letter of application describing how you came to will one thing. The goal of your education, and I’m speaking here in generalizations and very abstractly, was to attain that purity of will, purity of heart.

I think what did happen, partly as a result of the culture wars, but more importantly as a result of a growing awareness of precarity, economic instability, and the fact that what was possible in the 1950s turned out to be a brief historical window, is that people began to think of their education as part of a well-hedged portfolio that shouldn’t be overweighted in one thing. If your education was too specialized it over-exposed you, for example, to the risks of  particular market in that area. Insofar as liberal education needed a justification, it was not to help choose the one thing that you were going to be, but to make you resilient to changes. So, now, a letter of application would describe how well hedged you are through the diversification of things that you studied and experienced.

I think over time people began to value the options that education gave them, and to measure those options against the options that their education foreclosed. In particular they valued much more directly anything in education that could be tested or ranked, because options, even in the technical sense that I study in my current research, are about spreads and spreads require rankings, which are not natural, they are stochastically given. You want to know the gaps between the ranks and how many you can close. If you were doing academic counseling today or even college counseling in a competitive high school, you would teach students to think in that way, you would teach them to think of themselves as having a portfolio — and a good move would be one that leapt two ranks by closing one gap. So they then plan their careers accordingly.

Now the other, more contextual version of this, is that of course when you are anxious, when you are trying to hedge rather than acquire purity of heart, you are also operating in a world in which certain gaps and certain spreads are widening, and the rankings are changing and the gaps between the ranks are much more important than they were when the rankings themselves were more stable.

The great convergence of incomes that characterized the CMP era itself depended upon making higher education available in a way that would raise the supply of trained people and reduce income gaps. This is why people in a rising economy, whose labor union jobs were part of cost-plus defense contracts, were likely to say, “I want my kid to be in management. I’m willing to pay taxes out of a rising income, but I believe that the gaps between management salaries and shop floor salaries are going to decline as management skills become less scarce, and those are just better jobs intrinsically, so let’s go for it.” 

The California Legislative Analyst produced a study in 1998, which was the first year I went on the budget committee. (Before Chris [Newfield] went on the budget committee, so it impressed me more than it does him.) It covered roughly the period of changeover between defense and tech in California’s economy, and said that between 1973-1998 all the income growth was in the top 20%; it had been rapid within the 20%, but outside of that there had been stagnation. Now, politically, this is a two-way story. You can tell the people who were left behind, why should you pay for the people who are getting ahead? And you then give credit to the university for almost the entire increase in the gap because tech companies were hiring people who couldn’t train for those jobs, but were good students who could be trained after being hired. So in the other side of the story, you turn around and tell those good students that the taxpayers won’t pay for higher education — why would they pay, they are being left behind — and you, the student, are getting all of the increased value of your education as a private good rather than a public good. So you’ll now have to pay for your higher education which, miracle of miracles, you are entitled to finance thanks to federal and private financial aid programs. It also happens that just around 1998 the federal student loan program were privatized in just the way that federal home mortgage programs were privatized, so that global capital becomes available for the financing of higher education (and houses) in the same year that the state government releases the report showing the income spread.

UC’s new new business plan was a crystallization of the finance that could be developed if you leveraged the 80-20 gap and got students to self-finance their education increasingly by going to the debt markets. It meant that UC had a source of revenue that could be securitized in the same debt markets in which student loans were being securitized, and that the lack of state support could be both accelerated and leveraged by persuading people that the income gaps were the result of higher education. That material change to me underlies the cultural change that my friend Chris Newfield was talking about. We agree, but my emphasis is a little different. I want to focus on what happens when the upside of higher education is largely limited to the top 1%, and the rest of the 20% who go to public universities are being sold a band of downside protection that may not be very wide. I think that widening income gaps are a public problem, not due to education, that public universities have been trying to exploit ever since the most salient spread was 80/20, which happened to correspond to their target population.

It also speaks to the blurring of any kind of public private distinction, where the university tries to retain its status of a public institution while at the same time beginning to impress upon incoming students an understanding that there is an irreducibly private aspect to the way it is funded, to the goods that it produces . . .

And it goes back to your earlier question about Rawls and Nozick [discussed in part one of our interview], because the dispute between them was about spreads and gaps. I was in the class when Rawls published A Theory of Justice and in the class where Nozick developed his critique. Rawls’ book was about ranks and gaps, and says that what matters is the gap between the top and the bottom, and it doesn’t matter what the spreads are in the middle. Nozick asks why it matters if nomads cross society at the bottom. Why does that trigger what might be a massive rearrangement of all the other spreads, when it wouldn’t if they crossed at any other point? We could then talk about fugitives, aboriginals and so forth as many of my colleagues do. But finally we are talking about the relative fluidity of the spreads, and thus the changing spreads between the spreads themselves. Well, options theory is all about changing spreads between spreads — their relative volatility — as a way of creating investment vehicles that preserve and accumulate wealth in a world of turbulence and change. Shouldn’t optionality be the central topic of a theory of justice in a world of turbulence and change?

Rawls and Nozick had no way of talking about the value of optionality, which which really bridges their divide between liberty and equality by directly addressing the present value of future choice in a world of fluid inequalities (spreads). 

When politicians talk about optionality today in terms of uncertainty, precarity and so forth, they are mostly trying to take demands for Rawlsian justice off the table by showing people the risks that they were lucky to have survived, and suggesting that history is not on their side. A prime example is higher education which, as your question suggests, is now being sold as a hedge against falling even further behind in a world of widening income dispersion. That’s the private good aspect, and it’s becoming a hard sell to the extent that there is now so little upside for the 20% who are taking on debt.

Well I want to talk about who gets the upside of greater turbulence and uncertainty. This is where the class struggle is happening today. And higher education financed by student debt is ground zero, especially when the debt is being paid off over 20 or more years using money that would otherwise be accumulated for retirement. So higher education produces optionality, the upside of which has already been sold. We need to think of that optionality as a public good that has been reprivatized (or privatized differently) through the means by which public higher education is financed. That’s what I’m working on now — I call it “just optionality.” 

Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor for Full Stop.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.