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Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano’s nomination to be the 22nd president of the University of California announced days ago has already provoked skepticism and opposition from numerous faculty and students. Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at UCSB, wrote on his widely read blog that Napolitano is “unqualified to be a university president,” due to her lack of academic background and knowledge of how universities operate. “She has no political network in California,” added Newfield, “no local knowledge of the players, no constituency in the state, no national or state-based academic network, no direct understanding of the state’s history or current society.”
The UC’s graduate student union which represents thousands of student employees across the ten campuses, from Berkeley to San Diego, stated in a press release that they are “shocked and troubled,” by Napolitano’s nomination. “We fear that this decision will further expand the privatization, mismanagement, and militarized repression of free speech that characterized Mark Yudof’s presidency and will threaten the quality and accessibility of education.”
Yudof of course was UC’s cigar chomping, bald, and gruff president recruited from the University of Texas in 2008 to replace Robert C. Dynes and whip the school’s administration into shape. Dynes was a physicist who presided over various scandals including one that has been emblematic of the decline of universities across the U.S. over the past two decades: bloated and growing executive compensation packages even while colleges trim their budgets, lay off faculty, and hike tuition. UC’s executives were lambasted in the press for their six-figure salaries and cronyism until the Regents, that lofty board of millionaires, mostly friends and donors to the Governor of California given ultimate power of the nation’s largest university, told Dynes it was time to retire back to his laboratory at San Diego.
Napolitano is a departure from Yudof and Dynes in that she doesn’t appear to have been selected purely for her unique qualifications to handle the crisis de jour for the University. Yudof cleaned up Dynes’ mess. Dynes was recruited by several of the Regents in order to assemble Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a private corporation in which the university is a partner with Bechtel. LANS, as it’s called, was a creature to necessity; in the early 2000s another set of scandals —spying, theft, and various deadly accidents— threatened one of the UC’s most prized possessions, it’s sole, lucrative, and much coveted contract to manage the nation’s largest nuclear weapons laboratory in the high desert of the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico. Dynes arrived largely to assemble the UC’s joint bid for the contract with Bechtel and a few other large military-industrial corporations. He was successful in keeping UC wed to the nuclear lab.
Prior to Dynes was Richard Atkinson, an academic’s academic, a former head of the National Science Foundation, and Chancellor of UC San Deigo. Many UC faculty today look back on Atkinson as the ideal type, his reign the good old days, the high water mark for UC, untainted by worldly corruption and materialism, a set of little cities upon golden California hills where patient scientists and scholars could plod away at their research unhurried and secure in tenure and prestige.
But the UC has always been run by cops, spooks, weaponeers, and financiers at the top. The very first board of Regents in 1868 included William Ralston, California’s top banker whose wealth was built from deposits of the Comstock silver mines, and whose financial empire collapsed upon his wild speculative schemes. The second board of Regents included Irving Scott, a proto-Northrop Grumman building warships for the U.S. military. Scott’s company, the Union Iron Works, built the USS Oregon battleship which was deployed in the 1890s to the Philippines where it shelled the filipinos into submission – for their own childish good said UC’s leaders.
UC’s tenth president was selected partly based on his anthropological work in service of the growing U.S. imperium in Asia. David Prescott Barrows led the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes, “re-educating” the Filipinos, indoctrinating them into American culture, and the English language used by their new rulers. Barrows was molding colonial subjects. He once wrote as if he were molding play dough: “the physique of the Filipino is also being modified for the better. The race is physically small, but agile, athletic and comely.” Barrows concluded in a patriarchal tone, “in the face of these benefits the Filipinos are not unappreciative.”
By the time Clark Kerr took the reigns of UC in the 1960s era, UC had become the uncontested heavy weight champion of the military-industrial-academic complex. Yale could certainly boast deeper ties and more recruits sent yearly to the CIA, but UC Berkeley had John McCone, industrialist, weapons manufacturer, and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and for his crowning achievement in the halls of the national security state, director of the CIA from 1961 to 1965. Yale sent the future spied, Berkeley’s patron McCone ran the show. Today there is a building named after McCone on Berkeley’s campus, but history is alive. If one looks deeper into UC’s federal labs, and into its administration and faculty, one will find live lines to Langley.
McCone was just one among many of UC’s ultra-powerful spooks and Pentagon dons who sloshed money and personnel and gadgetry between Washington and California. After Clark Kerr’s ouster by right-wing, red hunting Regents and the nation’s paranoid FBI director, Charles Hitch took over the nation’s biggest and still fast growing university. Hitch was an economist brought to UC Berkeley to teach business, but his scholarly expertise lay in the economics of military budgeting. Among his greatest hits: The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age; Decision-Making for Defense; The Defense Sector and the American Economy, and; Defense Economic Issues, all very dry tomes patiently and authoritatively discussing the most scientifically effective ways to spend billions of tax dollars on nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. Professor Hitch was appointed assistant secretary of defense by Kennedy just prior to his taking the post of UC president. It was a natural progression.
Skeptics of Napolitano’s nomination to be UC president point out that running a big federal bureaucracy doesn’t make for skills transferable to UC, but in Hitch’s case that was in fact part of the reason the Regents selected him. Hitch was a budget man for the Cold War defense contractors and Uncle Sam. He was also chairman of the Budget Review Board and the Capital Outlay Review Board for UC while on faculty. So what better man to run the entire integrated show, not just lecturing and writing about how to budget the military-industrial-academic complex, but in fact drafting the operative budgets for the Pentagon and later the UC?
Napolitano does differ from the previous 21 white men who presided over the University of California in being a woman. She’s not different at all with respect to her career and connections to the national security state. Plenty of UC’s leaders, from Chancellors to the Regents to the President have been insiders in the Pentagon, the nuclear weapons complex, and other branches of the warfare state. However, DHS chief Napolitano is unlike the previous UC presidents in that she an academic outsider, and that is the singular and new difference she signals, a full departure from a presidency that once required the credentials of scholarship and pedagogy.
Darwin Bond-Graham, a contributing editor to CounterPunch, is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. His essay on economic inequality in the “new” California economy appears in the July issue of CounterPunch magazine. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion