UC system continues financial decoupling from state budget

April 27, 2008

As detailed in an interview with UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Administration, Nathan Bostrom on the UC Berkeley news website, the US’s most prestigious public university has taken another step towards de-facto privatization. Facing yet another budget crisis, the state government has decided to impose funding cuts across the UC system totalling over $100 million (Bostrom points out that it’s actually over $400 million if you compare the proposed budget approved last year with the new slash and burn budget).

The cuts reinforce a trend that has been happening for roughly the past 20-30 years: the financial de-coupling of the UC system from its dependency on public funding. This is not an angle that the UC News folks emphasized, but it emerges quite clearly from their coverage nonetheless. Check out the following quote from Bostrom when the interviewer asks him how the cuts will impact UC Berkeley in particular:

We get about 27 percent of our funds from the state; 30 years ago we got over 50 percent. That’s largely been made up by big increases in research funds, student fees, and private philanthropy, including not only gifts but grants and contracts. The good news is that that has made us somewhat less vulnerable to state cuts, in that we have more robust funding sources. The bad news is that the bulk of the state funding goes to our core mission.

Hmmm, so if the state’s not funding the core mission – which includes crucial public functions such as extending opportunities to underrepresented Californians, graduate student funding, and preserving public control over University resources – who will fund it? In the short term, the answer appears to be nobody.

Odds are, last year’s $500 million BP research deal at Berkeley was just the beginning of a new wave of mega-donations from the private sector. As I pointed out to my students in a fall course on global poverty and development, however, such “donations” come with numerous strings attached. Not only did UCB have to hand over authority over some of the hiring and funding decisions, it also surrendered many of its rights to any of the IP that will emerge from the new research center. In setting up shop on the campus of one of the country’s most progressive and respected public university campuses, BP simultaneously green-washes its image and free-rides on Berkeley’s resources, reputation, and infrastructure.  While the agreement also creates opportunities for Berkeley students and faculty to participate in biofuel research, it may constrain their ability to exercise independent control over the research agenda and to explore alternatives that do not align with BP’s researchers’ interests.

Clearly, the UC system’s professors, students, and administrators must find a way to adapt to this new financial environment. It is not enough to merely bemoan the decline and fall of public support for knowledge development in the United States – our education system has been moving towards privatization for several decades now. In response to these circumstances, it is crucial that Berkeley and the other UC campuses leverage their remaining resources to generate more advantageous funding arrangements than those created by the BP deal. In particular, UC must find better ways to prevent private knowledge enclosures from infringing on vital freedoms of speech, thought and research. Handing over the IP rights for new research centers is not a good way to deal with the problem. In the context of America’s broken IP system it only promises to create patent thickets and other barriers to campus researchers’ access to knowledge. At that point, the UC regents will not only have turned their back on the system’s core mission, but will also have facilitated the erosion of the University’s ability to promote knowledge creation for the greater social good. In the long run, such a transformation does not serve anyone’s interests.

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