Why transform the UC?

Why transform the UC?


Photograph overlooking Quail Ridge


One hundred and fifty years ago, the University of California began with 38 students and 10 faculty in Oakland. Today, the university system enrolls over 270,000 students, with another 500,000 attending classes through UC Extension. The UC employs over 180,000 people and for 2011-12 had projected operating revenue of over $22 billion dollars. The UC, in short, is an economy unto itself and shifting its governance, operations, and spending patterns will be an earthquake for the State of California. Here are a few specific reasons why transforming the UC system should be a priority for those interested in justice, sustainability, and democracy.

A decentralized network of anchor institutions - Ten UC campuses distributed across the state create a decentralized network of anchor institutions, each having a profound influence of their local and regional economy. Each has the flexibility to implement locally-responsive policies as well as structures that allow for productive partnerships with local organizations. In addition to the ten campuses, this institutional network includes research stations, laboratories, hospitals, and county extension offices that extend UC’s reach to every corner of the state.  The Democracy Collaborative has recently been elaborated on the idea of anchor institutions to develop the concept of anchor collaboratives. Anchor collaboratives are networks of place-based institutions that work together to advance equitable and inclusive wealth-building strategies. You can read more about anchor collaboratives here.

Bridge to state policy - We believe not only that our campuses should be at the center of anchor collaboratives in their local area but that these collaboratives should join together to influence policymaking for California as a whole - now the fifth largest economy in the world. As a part of state government, UC policy provides an opportunity to incubate ideas that lawmakers can use to craft legislation. The UC can be a proving ground for purchasing agreements, labor relations, workforce development, land use, transportation, energy production, zero-waste practices, and relationships with Native Californians and California Indians.   

Model for other colleges and universities - The organizing necessary to transform the UC system can provide a template for transforming higher education institutions across the country and the world. Most immediately, the California State Universities and Community College system can amplify the impact of policy changes started in the University of California. Together, the three branches of the state’s higher education system enrolls almost 3 million students annually.

Divest-Invest - Across the country, students and faculty are demanding their institutions divest from fossil fuels and other investments that do not reflect their mission and values. The next task, however, is not just to route the university’s finances toward more benign financial instruments but to change the nature of investment itself.  Can “investment” mean more than money? How do we evaluate the investment relationship? Can it be reciprocal? What is the nature of the return? The divest movement on college campuses provides an opportunity to redefine the nature and purpose of the finance. To succeed, however, requires a practical and positive vision for how colleges and universities should invest in the neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions that they interact with.

Worldwide connections - Most work on community economies focuses on local relationships. This is understandable but leaves international financial transactions to large banks and currency traders. Advocates for community economies need a means to define what a globally interconnected financial system should look like. With relationships and research sites around the world, the direct impact the UC can have on local and regional economies is not limited by the state’s boundaries. Universities can provide a model for a new global system grounded in local-to-local networks of reciprocity and exchange.

The next generation - Colleges and universities are a means of social reproduction. The curriculum, language, and training students receive set their expectations as they move into the workforce. Supporting community economies is a way to change these expectations, which makes changes in government, business, finance, and industry more possible. Exposure to the theory and practice of community economies will help students become agents of change once they graduate.

Giving students security - When a significant portion of UC students lack housing and suffer from food insecurity, something fundamental is wrong in university’s economic system. The growing inequities within our economy not only ensnare students in debt but threaten their current health and safety. Attending to our local and regional economies more holistically is a way to care directly for our student body.

Strong student networks - The UC system has been home to robust student organizing and activism for decades, and this work has resulted in tangible gains in sustainability policies, labor contracts, and a more inclusive curriculum. The UC has established networks of student leadership able to coordinate and advocate for transformative change.

Living up to its legacy - As a land grant institution, the University of California system accepted the mantle of service to the community as its primary calling. The current UC mission calls for the university to provide “long-term societal benefits” through the production, dissemination, and advancement of knowledge. The knowledge most important for this century involves increasing equity in the distribution of resources and re-establishing a reciprocal relationship with the living earth that is our home.