Exporting our brains

Pub date January 17, 2012

By Gary Brechin

The chancellor was absent as University of California police, kitted out in battle gear, vigorously beat and arrested students and professors at on the Berkeley campus. Called to account by the academic senate two weeks later, Robert Birgeneau explained that he had been on a trip through Asia at the time. The trip, he said, concluded with a “phenomenally successful,” though unspecified, mission to Shanghai, so he did not hear how badly things went at home until the following day.

What Chancellor Birgeneau and the dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering did on the trip was sign an agreement to open a 50,000-square-foot building in Shanghai’s Zhangjiang High-Tech Park two days after clubs fell on Cal students agitated by what they perceive as the progressive privatization and commercialization of their university. According to The New York Times, the new branch will give U.C. an Asian beachhead by opening “a large research and teaching facility as part of a broader plan to bolster its presence in China.” Other premier American universities such as Duke, NYU, and Stanford are, for a price, establishing similar “partnerships” that China “hope[s] will form the base of a modern high-tech economy.”

As U.S. funding dries up, college administrators hope that such collaborations will “support fundraising efforts that target wealthy Chinese alumni” — not to mention attracting their children, who are more able to pay ever-rising tuition than American students.

California’s business elite until recently oversaw the establishment and growth of a prestigious 12-campus system that was meant to do for the Golden State what the university now will do for China.

The promise of a virtually free and high quality education for Californians worked well to that end until 1978 when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13 to cut their taxes.

Starved of funding, California’s public schools plummeted from the best to near worst — but many believed that the University of California’s crucial role in the state’s and the nation’s economy would immunize it from the rot consuming the rest of the Golden State’s educational apparatus. But as California piled up multi-billion dollar deficits, U.C inevitably joined the rest of the public sector on the dream factory’s cutting room floor.

As with any organism fighting for its life, available money has moved like blood from regions the university administration considers expendable to those regarded as vital profit centers — like business, biotechnology, sports, and online learning initiatives — as well as lavish executive pay packages.

Last year, for example, the university’s flagship campus at Berkeley quietly divested itself of its outstanding Water Resource Center Archives to save the cost of four clerical positions and thus free space for the expanding College of Engineering. At UC San Diego, three specialty libraries closed altogether while a fourth — the largest oceanographic library in the world — will close in 2012.

Advanced communications and information technology will be among the first areas of research undertaken by the College of Engineering’s new partnership with Chinese industries seeking to overtake California’s fabled Silicon Valley.

For centuries, city states and nations jealously guarded their home industries to the point of sending assassins to dispatch those trading secrets with rivals. Decades of neoliberalism have encouraged today’s elites to do the opposite. Availing themselves of the deregulation and lowered trade barriers for which they paid and the communications technology they developed, they exported their industries and jobs to wherever labor costs are lowest and environmental constraints absent. Derelict factories, ruined towns, failing infrastructure, and prisons now pock those countries still imagining themselves members of the First World.

The screams of students belabored for asking where their university is going and for whom raises the question whether intelligence will be our last export, or whether it was among our first.

Gray Brechin is a three-time U.C. Berkeley alumnus and visiting scholar in the UBC Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. A version of this piece ran first in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.