Apologies for the quick post. Types in between meetings…

A key strategy in the discursive array known as neoliberalism is individualizing complex, collective social problems to forestall actual solutions. “If you are poor, it must be because you don’t work hard enough”. “If you are stressed, it must be because you lack mindfulness”. “If you aren’t successful, it surely is a product of you missing passion”.

This strategy is so primed in our minds that it even shapes progressive responses to collective problems, showing just how difficult it is to “break the spell” of the recent past. There is no better example of this than how we are talking about higher education in California following the momentous strike of graduate workers at the UC.

The strike is, as I wrote before, a litmus test for our imagination. The demands of the striking students are completely correct: they, like all workers, deserve a decent, enjoyable, rewarding life as the product of their labor. Making this possible and inclusive is the challenge that must be collectively addressed.

One of the consequences of the renegotiated contracts has been making longstanding austerity even more austere. The higher costs will result in an almost certain short-term reduction in the number of graduate students accepted by the various campuses of the University of California, with direct consequences on research and undergraduate teaching. Despite increased funding provided by the state through a so-called “compact” signed earlier in 2022, individual campuses will have to make difficult decisions in coming months.

Austerity has not been the target of conversations, however. Recent communications place responsibility on the University of California, rather than the state, for any reduction in the numbers of graduate students. “The 2023-2024 budget”, reads an email, “which is the largest-ever, is $3,000,000,000 larger than the 2022-2023 budget, and it includes an additional $200,000,000 allocated by the state of California for the express purpose of increasing graduate enrollment.” The University of California “has the means to ensure quality education and research as well as living wages for the workers who perform the lion’s share of that work. The only thing missing is the will.”

While it is true that the University of California commands a large budget, levels of state support remain at historical lows. Compared to the early 1980s, when the state provided around $27,000 in support per undergraduate student, the University of California receives between $13,000 and $15,000 per student from Sacramento. The University can certainly cut costs. It can lay off support staff. It can reduce the budgets of some vice-chancellorships. It can halt exchange programs. It can defer some maintenance. But this is trimming the edges. This is changing one job for another. This is simply shifting the burden of austerity rather than challenging its premise.

The Regents and central administration of the University of California have much work to do to avoid cuts in graduate education. They are responsible. But as we think about paths forward, asking managers to be better administrators of austerity is simply dancing to the tune of neoliberal logics. If we want change, if we want to value the work of staff, students, and faculty who are The University, the solution simply cannot be to do more with less.