Here’s one UC Berkeley graduate student-activist’s critical response to the film At Berkeley, posted with the author’s permission. Full link below:
Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley mistakes the enemies of public higher education for its defenders.
The University of California at Berkeley has long been considered the gold standard of public higher education in the US. But the university’s “public” character has come under attack in recent years.
Every semester, jaws hit the floor when I tell my students how much it cost to study at Berkeley when I started there as an undergraduate in 2002. Their tuition today is roughly $14,000 a year; mine, just ten years ago, was roughly $4,000. As a result, the university has become less and less accessible to disadvantaged and under-represented students and, except for those wealthy students whose numbers have risen, the undergraduate experience at Berkeley, as elsewhere, is today shaped to a large extent by the experience of indebtedness and economic insecurity.
[photo: Michael Moore/ Flicker, via]
Frederick Wiseman’s latest film At Berkeley, shot at the university in the fall of 2010, documents daily life at the university during the second year of the financial crisis. The film is motivated by an admirable commitment to advancing the ideal of a public world-class university open to students from all walks of life at a moment when that ideal is under threat as never before.
But Wiseman’s message, implicit in the film and explicit its promotion, is that it is the campus administration that has mounted the defense of public higher education in California. A look at the recent history of austerity at Berkeley shows that students and workers are the ones who have made tremendous sacrifices to defend the public university, despite the violence and repression sanctioned by the very administrators At Berkeley appears to celebrate.
The four-hour documentary is a celebration of the intellectual environment (and aesthetic beauty) of the Berkeley campus, showcasing star instructors teaching classes in a variety of fields to bright and engaged undergraduates. These scenes, characterized by a certain quality of timelessness, are spliced alongside scenes of administrators’ meetings on how to manage the budget crisis. The effect is to underline for the viewer how much, and what exactly, the California public stands to lose through the defunding of its universities, creating a sense of urgency through a lovingly-rendered documentation of this public good.
The administration’s line has always been that students should join them in pushing for more funding from the state house in Sacramento; in lieu of higher levels of funding, however, difficult decisions would have to be made by administrators — and accepted by students and workers — on the campuses.
Students and workers, on the other hand, while pressing for increased funding from the state, have always maintained that in the absence of higher levels of funding, administrators must prioritize maintaining access and equity at the university for low-income students, students of color and campus workers.
Despite the budget crisis and the supposed need for austerity, the number of non-academic managerial positions, and average pay for these positions, has ballooned during the same period that low-wage workers were being fired and furloughed and tuition was skyrocketing. The statewide and campus governing bodies of the public university systems have become heavily stacked with business and finance leaders, predictably resulting in the increasingly corporatized character of these public entities.
The crisis at the California universities, therefore, has been as much a crisis of administrative priorities as it has been a crisis of the state budget. And by repressing student and worker protests on the campuses, which were arguably the most effective form of pressure on legislators, administrators actually made it less likely that higher levels of funding would be forthcoming from the state. In fact, the administration has consistently played the role of enforcer of UC’s privatization through the use of police violence and legal repression.
But Wiseman’s film lacks any context for understanding the dual crisis of university administration priorities and social welfare state retrenchment during the financial crisis. Without this context, the dramatic high-point of the film – a student protest directed at campus administrators – reads as little more than a misguided non-sequitur. This is an egregious oversight on Wiseman’s part, but one that should not have been difficult to anticipate — he basically embedded his film crew with the administration, producing a film that reads more like an advertisement put out by the university’s public relations department than a serious political documentary.
The neoliberal response to the global economic crisis has included the privatization of public goods including education, which has propelled the development of massive, militant student movements in the UK, Chile, Puerto Rico, Quebec and California, among other places, since 2008. Privatization dispossesses students of a social good, our universities, created by and for the public at the same time that university workers are dispossessed of their livelihoods and pensions.
In 2009, a year before Wiseman’s film was shot, students at the University of California, the California State University and the Community College systems faced unprecedented tuition hikes, and workers faced unprecedented attacks on their livelihoods, due to cuts in state funding and administrative refusal to reorganize budgets in order to maintain equity.
In response, students across the state from California’s three-tier public university system, the largest public higher education system in the country, engaged in a series of… [To keep reading, see the original article here, on Jacobin.]