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  • IntroductionHigher Education on Its Knees
  • Michelle Ty (bio)

“L’istruzione é in ginocchio” (Education is on its knees), a popular Italian protest slogan goes.1 To think of the present state of higher education by attending to the lineaments of this image might offer a preparatory moment of reflection before we find ourselves, as one inevitably does, knee-deep in the rhetoric of crisis.2 The trope gives bodily expression to the aftermath of what have been largely abstract processes. At times, it would seem that education had been done injury by an uncertain and absent perpetrator. From where do these cuts come? Who has done this? When did this happen? What now?

The statement can be appreciated just as well for what it says as for what it leaves out. Its resolutely present tense impels us to supply a history or future that the figure itself would never yield. Disclosed in these words is an anonymous occasion, vacated of anyone recognizable. Ultimately, the image leaves appropriately undecided if education’s current position is one of recovery, supplication, or something else altogether.

This issue brings together essays written in response to what, in the mildest of terms, were particularly bad years for higher education beginning with the global recession in 2008. This beginning, of course, had a much earlier beginning, but the financial crisis [End Page 3] might serve as a loose marker for a period of intensified compromises to higher education, both economic and symbolic, which were often carried out in the name of a necessary austerity in the face of unusually scarce resources. If “crisis” retains any meaning at all during these times, it is only to give name to the condition of exception to which we have grown habituated.

Here in California, the Regents of the University of California approved a 32 percent tuition increase in November 2009.3 The frequent quotation of this figure often lets slip that the recent change had already been preceded by a 59.7 percent increase in tuition between the fiscal years of 2004 and 2008.4 During the previous summer, UC president Mark Yudof declared a fiscal emergency that would endow him with the “emergency powers” to impose furloughs and salary reductions, along with additional student fees.5 That fall, libraries would be shut down on Saturdays, lecturers were laid off, class sizes grew, and courses in Arabic and East Asian languages were canceled. A system-wide protest was organized for September 24, and the following month a series of building occupations took place at UCLA, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Davis. While janitorial staff continued to be laid off, the Regents awarded $3 million in bonuses to medical executives.6 On March 4, 2010, a statewide Day of Action included protests in Sacramento and San Francisco and a march from Berkeley to downtown Oakland, straight down the main thoroughfare of Telegraph Avenue. Shortly after Jerry Brown took office as governor, he announced a plan to cut $1.4 billion from higher education funding—$400 million from community colleges and $500 million from both the UC system and California State University.7 These cuts are a “best case scenario” and could become much deeper if his proposed tax extensions are not passed in the 2012 election. In the meantime, the Berkeley administration has started an initiative called “Operational Excellence,” a euphemistic name for an attempted financial damage control by means of laying off staff and performing a host of other activities, like approving a “Timekeeping proposal submitted by the Simplification initiative team.”8 To echo the recent words of Žižek, it seems as though we have entered [End Page 4] fully into an era in which the “economic state of emergency is becoming permanent.”9

Although this volume does little to make a secret of its left coast bias, the principal motive for its publication was to offer an international venue for thinking about higher education on its knees. In retrospect, the early germ for this project can be traced to a chance conversation I had with a graduate from the University of Vienna who mentioned that he and other students had been closely following the news from California while...


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