The Beginning of the End of the Public University


The 1960s were “the best of times …the worst of times.” As one author put it, a backlash was underway that marked the “Slow Death of Public Higher Education”. In less than a decade, California went from Master Plan to No Plan. The ill wind was ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California in 1966.

It should have been no surprise; Reagan had vowed to “clean up that mess in Berkeley,” harping about “sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you.” Reagan proposed tuition to make the bums work so they would be too tired to carry picket signs.

In office, Reagan reduced state funding for higher education, and laid the foundation for a shift to a tuition-based funding model. When students protested Reagan called the National Guard and crushed them.

Reagan shifted the political debate over the meaning and purpose of public higher education in America. He declared war on the poor, proposing to throw the “bums” off welfare. According to Reagan, universities along with an expensive welfare program were a problem and they took California dangerously close to socialism.

Tom Hayden in an article on Mario Savion argued, “The current era of privatization and neoliberalism was born in Berkeley as a countermovement to the ’60s”. We did not see what was on the horizon, too caught up with our perceived victories perhaps to see a reaction building that would change higher education.

At the time, however, we were too young, naive or preoccupied with the Vietnam War, campus turmoil and the excitement of times to recognize the significance of the changes. They were slow in coming – by 1970 the fees had increased to $50 a semester which was affordable.

Berkeley was temporarily galvanized by the firing of Clark Kerr. In response to student protests, Reagan ordered 2200 national guardsmen onto the Berkeley campus. Because of the prestige of Berkeley and UCLA for all intents and purposes privatization began earlier there with the admission of significant numbers of out of state and international students and an avalanche of lucrative private and public grants.

Meanwhile, by1959, San Fernando Valley State was no longer a satellite of Los Angeles State College. It was situated in a moderately conservative and overwhelmingly white suburbia. Spurred by freeways, it grew tremendously during the 1960s, and by June 1972 the college officially named itself California State University, Northridge.

My first student teaching assignment was in 1957 at SFVSC through LA State College. Over the years I taught junior high, high school and at Pierce College in the Valley. Active in the Latin American Civic Association and the Mexican American Political Association, we lobbied SFVSC for programs. There were a few sympathetic professors such as Betty Brady and of course, Julian Nava.

Valley State was a Mormon institution, controlled by a Mormon hierarchy. The professors wore white shirts, ties and coats. There was a faculty dining hall (cafeteria). At the time I did not realize it, but although we were a cow college, there was a feeling of tradition. Most faculty members respected the liberal traditions of a university education, and consequently reacted toward any threat to these traditions. Governance was part of that mindset and it was defended by the faculty senate.

The selection of James Cleary in 1969 marked a transition from Mormon rule. Cleary was regarded as a genuine scholar although his publications largely rested on his editorship of Robert’s Rules of Law. He had been a professor and administrator at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. He was Catholic and looked presidential, always with his pipe in hand.

He led CSUN to 1992. Cleary, for all of his warts, respected faculty governance and fought for the autonomy of the university. I cannot remember an instance during his tenure when he overturned the decision of the faculty senate. However, changes were taking place during the 1970s like the draconian Proposition 13. He and other administrators unlike today’s managers used their moral authority to slow down encroachments.

By 1977, enrollment at CSUN cost $95. Eleven years later it rose to a $342 tuition fee. Until the early 1990s, tuition and fees remained low. Nevertheless, tuition and fees more than doubled from the late 1980s to early 1990s. By fall 2006, the University had tuition of $1,260. Spurred by the 2008 recession it went to $2,000 per year. By 2011–12, it rose to over $6,000 per year at CSU. ($3,272.00 in the spring 2015).

It is merely speculative but the decline in the traditions of the liberal university and the protection of faculty of the principle of faculty governance in all probability was facilitated by the decline of tenured track faculty and the rise in the number of part time faculty. There were also structural changes; full time faculty was only required to be on campus two days a week. Today, many professors lack a sense of place; it is a job rather than an institution.

Administrators have also changed. They are not cut in the image of the pipe smoking Cleary, and not one since his departure can be called a scholar. They are what the neoliberal-privatized university require, overseers. Under their rule, faculty governance has declined and even the department chairs are today part of the administrative staff.

In a recent address to the faculty, titled “Molting Season”, Provost Harry Hellenbrand defended the privatization of CSUN and rationalized the increase in tuition: “Yes, CSUN charges students more than they paid fifty years ago. But factor in $150,000,000 more in aid.” This echoes CSUN President Dianne Harrison who told members of Chicana/o Studies that students could afford high tuition and dorm costs because they were getting Pell Grants. It is cynical and it is important to note that even the conservative Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke had opposed the notion of tuition.

The “slow death of Public Higher Education” has come about from within. The managers have benefitted handsomely in terms of salaries, staff increases and slush funds. When a president comes in many of her housing perks are paid by non-state funds that do not have the restraints or scrutiny of state funds. Administrators have slush funds from which they can pay off cronies.

On the CSUN campus we have a private university that “molted” from the public institution. Privatization has contributed to the escalation of student costs with less and less public funds expended on education.

Privatization and neoliberalism that began in Berkeley as a countermovement to the ‘60s is today in full swing. They are bringing about changes that will end public higher education and limit access to public higher Ed to the upper 50 percent.

Meanwhile, academicians will put together the narrative of the privatization and death of the public university. The patterns are easily discerned. More difficult will be to recognize and describe the changes that they have brought about in we the people.

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