Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal on how Ronald Reagan’s decisions continue to strangle the ideals of public university
Excerpt from Dissent Magazine
The California student movement has a slogan that goes, “Behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops.” And no one embodies that connection more than the Ronald Reagan of the 1960s. Elected governor of California in 1966 after running a scorched-earth campaign against the University of California, Reagan vowed to “clean up that mess in Berkeley,” warned audiences of “sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you,” complained that outside agitators were bringing left-wing subversion into the university, and railed against spoiled children of privilege skipping their classes to go to protests. He also ran on an anti-tax platform and promised to put the state’s finances in order by “throw[ing] the bums off welfare.” But it was the University of California at Berkeley that provided the most useful political foil, crystallizing all of his ideological themes into a single figure for disorder, a subversive menace of sexual, social, generational, and even communist deviance.
When Reagan assumed office, he immediately set about doing exactly what he had promised. He cut state funding for higher education, laid the foundations for a shift to a tuition-based funding model, and called in the National Guard to crush student protest, which it did with unprecedented severity. But he was only able to do this because he had already successfully shifted the political debate over the meaning and purpose of public higher education in America. The first “bums” he threw off welfare were California university students. Instead of seeing the education of the state’s youth as a patriotic duty and a vital weapon in the Cold War, he cast universities as a problem in and of themselves—both an expensive welfare program and dangerously close to socialism. He even argued for the importance of tuition-based funding by suggesting that if students had to pay, they’d value their education too much to protest.
It’s important to remember this chapter in California history because it may, in retrospect, have signaled the beginning of the end of public higher education in the United States as we’d known it. It’s true that when the Great Recession began in 2008, state budgets crumbled under a crippling new fiscal reality and tuition and debt levels began to skyrocket. It was also in the context of the California student movement that the slogan “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” first emerged, in 2009, when students occupied campus buildings in protest against budget cuts, tuition hikes, and staff cutbacks, and were crushed by the same kind of overwhelming police force that was later mobilized against Occupy encampments across the country. But while university administrators have blamed budgetary problems on state legislatures—and scapegoated individual police officers, like the now-notorious (and former) UC-Davis “pepper spray cop,” for “overreactions”—these scenarios are déjà vu all over again for those with long memories. When Mitt Romney urges Americans to “get as much education as they can afford,” or when university administrators call the police as their first response to student protest, it’s Ronald Reagan’s playbook they’re working from.
Aaron Bady is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a blogger for the New Inquiry.
–Photo taken at UC Berkeley in February, by jankyHellface