What US universities are doing when they open campuses in rich police states: exporting our brains

Exporting Our Brains
Gray Brechin

The Chancellor was absent as University of California police kitted out in battle gear vigorously beat and arrested students and professors at the Berkeley campus ( Called to account by the Academic Senate two weeks later, Robert Birgeneau declared himself “extremely disturbed that these events happened.” Claiming to take full responsibility for a terrible miscommunication, he 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. The two events on opposite sides of the Pacific coupled with a subsequent crisis in Berkeley provide a freeze frame for the self-inflicted decline of the West.

Chancellor Birgeneau and the dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering, signed 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 more able to pay ever-rising tuition than American students.

California’s business elite until recently oversaw the establishment and growth of a prestigious twelve-campus system — if you count U.C.’s twin nuclear weapons laboratories — meant to do for the Golden State what the university now will do for China. Codified in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, 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. In doing so they fired the opening gun of a tax revolt that spread quickly to the rest of the nation.

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. Banker Russell S. Gould, chair of U.C. Board of Regents, called the university “an essential incubator of the California dream,“ (, 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. Campus-building in the state’s three-tiered higher education system ceased, but after the 2008 stock market crash, the entire system began dramatically contracting even as student tuition and debt skyrocketed.

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 such as business, biotechnology, sports, and online learning initiatives as well as lavish executive pay packages meant to retain, those executives say, the very best talent. 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 ( The University library closed on Saturdays, but at UC San Diego, three specialty libraries closed altogether while a fourth — the largest oceanographic library in the world — will close in 2012 (

Two weeks after the Shanghai agreement, and on the eve of final exams and a proposed faculty vote of no confidence in Chancellor Birgeneau, the campus email system crashed. For the following week, an institution that its overseers still boast as the world’s greatest public university struggled to function in the 21st century with only periodic and guttering communication. Earlier cost-cutting that removed phones from professors’ offices only aggravated miscommunication. Shelton Waggener, the campus associate vice chancellor for information technology, explained to the student newspaper that by failing to upgrade to increased demand he was “trying to be prudent given the budget situation, (but) now in retrospective it would have been good to have invested money in the storage so we would have avoided this crisis.”

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 natives back home grow ever more restless and noisy.

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 UCB Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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