TJ Clark’s Speech on the Occupations in California

My name is Timothy Clark. I came to Berkeley in 1988, and the 21 years I have taught and researched here have been in many ways the most rewarding of my life. Therefore my feelings are painfully contradictory, you can imagine, as I look out at these old and new friends. It is an honor and a privilege to make the first speech on this occasion, but at the same time a tragedy.

Let me speak to the honor first. What I see in front of me – the banners, the faces, the demands – is the life of the university as I understand it. It is the university taking on form in the public sphere – escaping from the academic boardroom, shrugging off the jargon of the entrepreneurs and patent-seekers, and reminding us what a university really is. A university is not a brand name. It is not an umbrella organization for a 150 assorted corporate laboratories, with the faculty inside each striking bargains with their funders about how much or how little of the new knowledge they produce is immediately going to be “privatized.” A university – a public university – is not a finishing school for the sons and daughters of the shrinking few able to afford the fees. A university does not build its future on the backs of those most vulnerable in its midst – the men and women who keep the places we learn in safe and clean and continuing to function. A university – this is the last and vital element in its moral and intellectual life – does not see its crisis in isolation from the one that is threatening the state as a whole. It knows what is happening in schoolrooms in Richmond and Oakland and San Jose. It feels the despair of those for whom community college or the Cal State system seemed to offer a way forward, and who now see their courses cancelled and buildings shuttered. And all this – this is what is unforgivable – in a state whose concentrations of private and corporate wealth remain immense, but which a failed political system has put off limits even when the very life or death of our society is at stake.  

People will say that in comparison with the hard times in California at large the university still has it good. I have two replies. First, of course we are not claiming parity in suffering with the truly disadvantaged and vulnerable, who are bearing the brunt of the state’s financial meltdown. We acknowledge the things we still have – but at the same time we know that a system of public education in a great state like California is a complex, interdependent unity, and that we should fight with all we can, without apology, to preserve its whole fabric. The UC system is a precious resource – a public resource – built over more than a century with taxpayers’ money, private generosity and shrewdness, and the intellectual energy of generations of students, teachers, and staff. A state in its right mind does not destroy that resource when times get tough.

But this, make no mistake, is what is happening. How many times in the past two weeks have students found their department office closed, when they urgently needed advice on courses and requirements – “due to staff shortage”? How many times have you had to remember that if you needed to study in the library the coming weekend – that basic need of a university life – you should think again, for libraries at Berkeley cannot afford to open on either Saturday or Sunday? (Unlike those at the Universities of Mississippi and Alaska.) A colleague told me yesterday of a conversation she had had – one of many such conversations this week – with a trusted and dedicated member of staff in her building: the one person spared the layoff, asking her, with real desperation in his voice, “But how am I supposed to do the job now? How can one person prevent the whole facility from deteriorating to the point of no return?”

This is no time for the politics of denunciation. I know that many of these decisions are being forced on deans and chairs who can see no other way to do what has been mandated from the top. But as an overall policy, what we are living through makes me choke with anger. It is destructive and deeply unfair. It steers too close – if I may borrow an infamous phrase from a famous member of our faculty – to an “organ failure” model of crisis management. And if our leaders in UCOP think that in the end they will wear us down by using the oldest tactics in the reactionary playbook – Divide, Deceive, Conceal, Demoralize – they are deeply mistaken. We shall fight back.

Finally, then, let me offer the bare outlines of an alternative. There is a real emergency, we recognize, and many of us are willing to help address it. What do we want? What would bring us on board, as active participants in a work of reconstruction?

Well, supposing we were presented with an honest and transparent and coherent plan for the preservation of the public university in hard times… Supposing the plan was one in which sacrifices really were shared – in which the pet projects and inflated building programs and hidden overhead were no longer off limits when cuts were discussed… Supposing the profit-generating parts of the UC system (and they exist, by the way) were asked – maybe temporarily, as part of the true emergency – to contribute a proportion of their surplus to the urgent needs of the university’s teaching heart… Supposing the preservation of the true economic, racial, and ethnic diversity of UC’s student body was an absolute priority, an un-negotiable part of our institution’s character… Supposing it was simply unthinkable for the university’s future to be decided, as Yudof and the Regents are planning, by a commission of professional school managers and technicians who seldom or never face an actual classroom or a lab…

Then we would come on board. And this can still happen, my friends. We are at a moment of near-breakdown, and no one is pretending that the way out of it will be pain-free. An immense amount depends on the wider politics of the state. It is up to us to argue the case for a public university – for public education – in a democracy in crisis. The crisis is real. But crises produce choices. They shine a light on managers and management-speak. They make another vision possible. They remind us of why we think teaching and learning and the production of new knowledge matter – why they are vital to the life of society at large –and they call us to fight to preserve the space in which they can thrive. The fight has begun.

TJ Clark holds the George C. and Helen N. Pardee Chair as Professor of Modern Art at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, including Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999) and, most recently, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006).  He is also a member of the Retort Collective.

Please distribute widely. For more information on the occupations check these links:

likelostchildren.blogspot.com

occupyca.wordpress.com

wewanteverything.wordpress.com/


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  1. By Occupy California « occasional links & commentary on September 30, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    [...] (1999) and, most recently, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006), gave a recent speech at Berkeley on the current situation in California in relation to higher education. Here are some [...]

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