Thursday, March 11, 2010

UC Budget and Libraries

In times of severe budget crisis as we are surely in, it makes sense to consider all points of view and, as librarians, it behooves us to consider as well the alternative press. So, here is a short review of an article that summarizes well one extreme view of the UC Budget crisis.

Parrish, Will, and Darwin Bond-Graham. "Disaster Capitalist University." Anderson Valley Advertiser 58.7(2010).

The article is listed on the LAUC Futures bibliography on the LAUC wiki with an active link.

The article starts with the decision of last July by the California State Legislature to remove $813 million from the University of California's budget for the next fiscal year. In response, the university's Board of Regents declared a "state of emergency" accompanied by special "emergency powers" for UC President Mark Yudof with which he has implemented cost-cutting measures that have been the subject of controversy. The article generalizes this incident to a general trend which it calls "disaster capitalism" based on a 2007 book called The Shock Doctrine by journalist Naomi Klein. The theory is that major players in a capitalist society will fabricate crises in order to suspend the freedom of the people, suppress their spirit of inquiry and arrogate special powers to themselves (players) for their own advancement. This notion has had currency elsewhere. In George Orwell's iconic novel 1984, societies are kept united and oppressed by remote wars created for this purpose. More recently, Michael Crichton's novel, State of Fear, postulated that the entire of issue of global warming is the fabrication of environmentalist groups and corrupt elements of government for their own hidden agendas.

Applied to the UCs, the "shock doctrine" introduces numbers, similar to those heard already, to show that the university is not facing a crisis that is beyond the resources it has available. The article goes on to build a complex web of political and financial connections, including Yudof. This network, allegedly, is using the current financial crisis to gain unprecedented control of university money and invest it in large corporations for personal profit.

I've selected this article for review partly because it appeared in a library listserve, so it is a specimen of the discourses that we are exposed to. It also, rather articulately, gives voice to some of the most extreme objections to the current handling of the budget crisis as well as the misgivings and dissatisfaction that one could hardly avoid feeling in the midst of these events.

How are librarians to respond to this line of reasoning? First, one can hardly deny that this is a specimen of conspiracy theories that have appeared in many contexts. This does not mean that they are to be dismissed out of hand, and it seems undeniable to me that there is some degree of truth in the claims. However as part of the conspiracy genre, this article is liable to a lot of concerns with others of its type. First of all, the claims tend to be long on suggestiveness and insinuations but hard to prove. In this category is another issue that deserves to be singled out. There is a practice of throwing out numbers here and there to support a picture of injustice by the university policy. Maybe these numbers are correct. Yet, it is undeniable that the whole financial picture is far, far more complicated to the point where it is very likely impossible to summarize by a few numbers as has been done. Is it even possible to communicate the essence of the university's finacial situation to the populace at large? I don't know. But it seems to me futile for proponents of both sides to quote a few numbers here or there and claim that their side is right. This just doesn't convince anyone.

In any case, what are librarians to do? Sadly, not a great deal that I can see. We certainly are not in a position to do investigative reporting to expose the truth of large conspiracy theories. It seems like the best we can do is to keep on doing our job and advocating wherever possible the importance of libraries and librarians for the public good against which uses of the public money, even by conspirators, will, ultimately, be held accountable.

For these seeking to explore the actual financial state of the university in all its details and communicate this to constituents, it's important to develop a picture that persuasively shows the complexity of the finances rather than what looks like soundbites and partisan data.