History

Who Is Paying for the Public Life?

At UCSB, it’s a billionaire with a thing for single rooms.

Photo of Charlie Munger next to a rendering of a hulking boxy dorm taking up a city block
Charlie Munger and “Charlie’s Vision.” Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images and University of California, Santa Barbara design review committee.

In 1965, the Yale architecture magazine Perspecta commissioned Charles Moore, a young architect who had taught at the University of California, Berkeley for the previous six years, to write about monumental architecture in California. Moore wrote, by way of introduction, that he was about to zig, where the editors of Perspecta had thought he would zag: The “editors suspected, I presume, that I would discover that in California there is no contemporary monumental architecture, or that there is no urban scene (except in a sector of San Francisco), or more probably, that both monumental architecture and the urban scene are missing.”

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But rather than dismissing everything in California, Moore delivered his classic essay “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” an uneasy celebration of privatized public spaces, of “what we have instead”: a new kind of public sphere, for a new kind of public. He described downtown Santa Barbara as one of the few great public spaces of Southern California, “a public realm filled with architectural nuance and, even more importantly, filled with the public.” But apart from a few isolated examples like that one, Moore argued that this Californian public life was often to be found in paid-entry spaces, and its epitome was Disneyland, “the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades.” This theme park, he wrote, was a blueprint for the future. “To create a public realm,” Moore wrote, “we depend, in part, on more Disneys, on men willing to submerge their own Mickey Mouse visions in a broader vision of greater public interest, and who are nonetheless willing and able to focus their attention on a particular problem and a particular place.”

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In the past few days, another wannabe Disney has been in the news, and we’ve had the chance, once again, to see how California has borne out Moore’s midcentury prophecies about the risks and benefits of privatization. News of Munger Hall, UC Santa Barbara’s planned 4,500-student dorm, “designed” and partly funded by nonagenarian billionaire and untrained architect Charlie Munger, has exploded on Twitter and beyond after an architecture consultant resigned in protest over the lack of windows in 94 percent of its rooms. As shocking as this project is, it is the result of two long-standing processes: the defunding of public education, and the surrender of our public realm to private donors that Moore foresaw 55 years ago.

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For Moore, this surrender wasn’t all bad. Moore pointed out that “Versailles cost someone a great deal of money, too,” and he believed in the need to create some kind of public space, in a state dominated by domestic architecture. This process would depend partly on the skill of architects who might seize new tools provided by technology and industry—the building blocks of California’s postwar boom—to differentiate the “floating gray suburbs” then spreading between the pleasant anchors of early California towns. But these tools could only be applied given an appropriate commission, and that commission might have to come from a private individual like Disney.

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I am a graduate student at UCSB, and while I will probably not end up housed in this dorm, which is intended for undergrads, the plan to build Munger Hall matters a lot to me, as it will change the face of my campus and alter the experience of its student body. The proposed building is 11 stories tall, approximately the same height as Storke Tower, the campanile that is the campus’s visual icon. Each residential floor will contain 512 rooms, divided into eight corridors called “Houses,” which each include eight suites of eight beds with two shared bathrooms per suite; one of the design’s achievements is that students will have singles rather than sharing bedrooms.* Renderings of the rooms look nearly identical to my grad student bedroom one complex over, except that I have a window. Many critics have pointed out that one can only exit the suites through a single corridor, creating significant fire safety problems.

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The ground floor will include utility rooms as well as a bakery, grocery “market,” and 40-seat theater. The laundry room looks remarkably small for a 4,500-person building. The top floor, known as “Our Town in the Sky,” includes a gastropub, demonstration kitchen, café, juice bar, and multiple fitness centers. The design applies the corporate campus model of Silicon Valley tech giants—generous common spaces that blur the boundaries between work and life—to an actual university campus.

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According to the report presented to the design review committee, “the grand scale of the building will be treated in a classical motif with a clearly delineated base with common areas, a middle section containing the student housing and a top that is dedicated to the ‘Our Town in the Sky’ component.” The exterior is made of concrete panels, and the “modular residential units” are supposed to be prefabricated off-site to reduce assembly time. An immense rectangular block with no massing variation to add interest, it is not an attractive building. Munger called it “our version of ship architecture on land,” and the similarities to a beached ocean liner are clear.

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How could this unappealing project get so far? The school’s stated reason is UCSB’s housing crisis. UCSB is located not in Santa Barbara, but one town north, in Goleta, where the average house price has increased 17 percent in the last year to $1 million, according to the real estate website Redfin. (According to realtor.com, the median listing home price in Goleta is $957,000.) UCSB has also increased enrollment, beyond the terms of a legally binding Long Range Development Plan co-signed by the city of Goleta and the county of Santa Barbara. This year, due in part to COVID-19, many UCSB students struggled to find housing; UCSB has housed some in local hotels. The official UCSB press statement about Munger Hall framed it as delivering on the Long Range Development Plan’s goal of 5,000 additional beds.

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But Munger is only paying for $200 million of a $1.5 billion building. So why would UCSB allow Munger to dictate how $1.3 billion of university money will be spent? Because, as Moore predicted in 1965, the superrich now hold the keys to the public realm. They have helped fill the gap left by the decline of public support for cultural and educational institutions, which accelerated with Ronald Reagan’s defunding of the University of California.

The UC system was pivotal to California’s postwar boom, as university science labs fueled the growth of the aerospace and defense sectors and new campuses accommodated the expansion of higher education. As Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal write, in the postwar era, “the UC’s public mission was as close to a bipartisan consensus as you could find.” Simon Marginson has described this midcentury model as “the California idea of higher education”:

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an ideal to be realized … as well as a vast workshop of practical activity in which people are prepared for work and society, opportunity is allocated, and new ideas are formed and disseminated. It embodies a society-wide commitment to universal access to higher education, with tuition free of charge or low enough to constitute only a minor barrier to entry and financial aid for the needy as required.

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But this vision lasted a shockingly short time—a matter of decades. In 1966, Ronald Reagan ran for governor on an anti-UC, anti-student-protester platform, promising to “clean up that mess in Berkeley.” A year after Moore published “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” Reagan was elected in a landslide, and he made good on his promise. Fifteen days after Reagan’s inauguration as governor, the Board of Regents voted to dismiss UC President Clark Kerr, and in 1970 a primarily Reagan-appointed Board of Regents agreed to an educational fee that amounted to the first tuition in the UC system’s history.

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Charging tuition had two goals. First, the state would save money. But just as importantly, students who paid for university (proponents of the plan believed) would value their education more highly—and be less likely to protest. Reagan’s educational policy chimed with the privatized public spaces Moore half-celebrated: You had to pay, Reagan said, for the public life. Although Moore was an architect and Reagan was a politician, they each saw California as a laboratory for the idea of the American public. While Moore took the pragmatic view that we should take the chances we got to create something public, even if that meant a corporation was paying for it, Reagan fully celebrated the privatization of society. As president, of course, Reagan would implement this philosophy on a national scale.

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Reagan’s policy codified the decrease of state funding to UC, from a peak of nearly 70 percent in the 1950s to just 8 percent in 2021–22. To partly make up for this decrease, undergraduate tuition for in-state students at UCSB is now over $14,000 a year; for out-of-state students it’s over $44,000. This is a far cry from the “universal access” of the postwar era. In this funding scheme, money comes from individuals, rather than the state. It’s not that big a jump from charging out-of-state students $45,000 a year to agreeing to details about room layout in exchange for a $200 million gift.

Munger’s “philanthropy, with strings attached” offer to UCSB echoes the case of Barry Diller’s $260 million Little Island park in the Hudson River, which will revert to city-funded maintenance after 20 years. Maintenance costs for marine structures like Little Island are significant. Diller isn’t making any money off of Little Island, and there is much to be said for the advantages to the public of a new park in Manhattan. But Little Island lets a billionaire dictate what kind of public space a city should have, and where it should be. It also lets people like Diller dictate where money doesn’t get invested—like in much-needed maintenance for dozens of public and recreational facilities across New York City that don’t have the sex appeal of building an island.

Munger Hall is the ugly West Coast twin of Little Island. But if the rooms had windows and there was some kind of variation to the massing, making the exterior look a little more pleasing, I don’t think we’d be quite so upset. The true horror of Munger Hall is not its layout, but a billionaire’s power to determine how a public university spends its money—and how natural that would seem to us, if we liked the building more. When New York City pays for the maintenance of Little Island, and UCSB shells out for an unloved, poorly lit dorm, the turn to private funding has truly robbed us of our say in democratic society. From his perspective at a still-tuition-free UC Berkeley, Charles Moore failed to see just how much we lose when we leave the public realm up to the whims of the superrich. Charlie Munger’s paying for the public life, and he’s getting his money’s worth.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2021: This piece originally misstated that each suite of eight rooms would have one bathroom.

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