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News + PoliticsHousingUCLA's secretive neoliberal housing conference

UCLA’s secretive neoliberal housing conference

It's worse than Davos: A one-sided policy event with no dissenters—and no reporters unless they sign gag orders.

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If you were looking for an event that epitomizes the neoliberalization of the University of California, you’d be hard pressed to top the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies’ 2022 Lake Arrowhead Symposium.

The Symposium takes its name from its venue, UCLA’s historic “Lodge-Conference Center and Family Resort” at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, about 100 miles east of the campus. Last October it convened there under the theme “California’s Housing at the Crossroads,” with the declared intention to “examine California’ housing crisis and the solutions needed to fix it.”

It’s a public school using public money, but we can’t find out even basic information about the Lake Arrowhead housing conference, where reporters have to sign a gag order.

According to its website, the Symposium is ITS’s “signature annual event,” dedicated “to bring[ing] researchers and practitioners together to address pressing transportation, environmental, and development issues in a setting conducive to peer interaction and collaborative learning.” But to all appearances, that setting is more conducive to elite networking and indoctrination.

I say “to all appearances,” because despite being sponsored by a public institution, staged at a publicly owned venue, and funded in large part by public agencies (more about that below), the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium is a decidedly private event. As at the mother of all such gatherings, the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, attendance at the Symposium is by “invitation-only.” Would-be participants have to be nominated by an organization. (An online form asks the nominating organization to indicate whether it is a government, private sector, nonprofit, or academic entity; apparently the ITS doesn’t realize that nonprofits are private.) The Symposium team reviews submissions and decides whom to invite. Scholarships are available:

Priority will go to those who work to advance equity in transportation as part of their compensated or uncompensated work, those for whom the Symposium would aid in their professional development, and those with a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences or who have been marginalized from governmental and academic power structures.

In most cases, no refunds. That’s because, “[o]nce you register, we pay for you to attend even if you cancel.” The 2022 Symposium ran from Sunday, October 16, at 1:30 pm to Tuesday, October 18, at 1 pm. I’ve seen a receipt for one ticket that cost $1,195.

Despite its prioritization of equity and diversity in awarding scholarships, the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium is an exclusionary gathering—even more exclusionary than Davos. The World Economic Forum publicizes it proceedings—to be sure, in carefully curated podcasts and briefs. But at least WEF cites people who attend the event.

No such citations emanate from the Symposium. I haven’t found a single news story that reported on its proceedings, much less cited anyone who was there.

That figures. The Institute of Transportation Studies conducts the Symposium under what’s known as the “Chatham House Rule:” “Participants are free to use and share the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker[s] should be disclosed. This is known as the Chatham Rule.”

I’d never heard of Chatham House or its Rule. Googling revealed it to be a venerable London think tank founded after the first World War. According to Inderjeet Parmar and Shihui Yin, writing in The Wire in 2020, it is “one of the world’s oldest and most influential think tanks.” Its mission is to defend the “liberal international order that grew out of imperial-internationalism” and “further embedded Western power in world affairs.” Now that order is “unravelling at home and challenged by rising powers abroad.”

As such, Chatham House makes an apt model for the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, which is committed to California’s failing neoliberal housing agenda and the belief that the private real estate industry would solve the state’s affordable housing crisis if only it were freed from regulatory constraints.

Given the blackout on the Arrowhead Symposium, how do I know that?

For starters, the neoliberal bias is evident from the lineup of speakers posted on the event’s home page. In 2022 they included Gustavo Velasquez, Director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development; Jerusalem Demsas, described by ITS as “a policy reporter for The Atlantic” who is a favorite of the Yimbys; Chris Elmendorf, UC Davis Professor of Law and de facto member of the San Francisco Chronicle editorial staff; Annie Fryman, former legislative aide to Scott Wiener, now Director of Cities at ADU firm Abodu who, according to the SF Standard, will have a position at SPUR funded by big tech donors; Meea Kang, senior vice president of development for Related California; and Michael Lens, Michael Manville, and Paavo Monkkonen, UCLA planning professors, whom some 48 hills readers may recognize from their 2020 exchange with myself.

Missing from this roster are any dissenters from the dominant, neoliberal paradigm.

That’s a problem, because there’s a big difference between the World Economic Forum and Chatham House on the one hand and the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies on the other: The former are private institutions, the latter is a public one—and more importantly, a public institution officially dedicated to education. Genuine education involves debate, especially debate about conventional wisdom.

Last August, I emailed Juan Matute, ITS Deputy Director (Director Brian Taylor was on leave) the following questions:

May reporters attend the Symposium?

The themes of the 2022 Symposium, the sources of and solutions to California’s housing woes, are highly controversial, yet the announced speakers are all from one side of the debate. How do you square that partiality with UCLA’s identity as a public institution, and one dedicated to education to boot?

Along the same lines, why are participants asked to “refrain from attributing statements or quotes to speakers or other attendees”? And why is the Steering Committee content password-protected?

Matute emailed back a reply that further attested to his and presumably ITS’s insularity, doctrinaire pedagogy, and disdain for journalists. I’ve annotated his response:

Question: May reporters attend the Symposium?

Matute: Reporters may attend the Symposium. However Chatham House Rules [sic] have applied to the Symposium since it origins in the early 90s and this helps to promote constructive dialogues. Reporters who are invited to attend agree to certain terms and conditions in advance.

How long ITS has applied the Chatham House Rule to the Symposium is irrelevant. Such censorship violates the principles of a great university—indeed, it violates the principles of UCLA:

Our Mission

UCLA’s primary purpose as a public research university is the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society.

To fulfill this mission, UCLA is committed to academic freedom in its fullest terms: We value open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals, and freedom from intolerance. In all of our pursuits, we strive for excellence and diversity, recognizing that openness and inclusion produce true quality. These values underlie our three institutional responsibilities: education, research and public service.

As for reporters agreeing to certain terms and conditions in advance of attendance: To my knowledge, Jerusalem Demsas was the only reporter who attended the 2022 Symposium. ITS did not respond to my California Public Records Act request asking to see contracts with all the presenters. So I have to assume that Demsas “agree[d] to certain terms and conditions in advance”—among them, not to cite any of the participants, including herself, by name. That’s an unusual rule for a journalist to accept. We sought to contact Demsas through social media and the Atlantic, but never heard back.

Question: The themes of the 2022 Symposium, the sources of and solutions to California’s housing woes, are highly controversial, yet the announced speakers are all from one side of the debate. How do you square that partiality with UCLA’s identity as a public institution, and one dedicated to education to boot?

Matute: It seems that public support for the types of housing policy solution that I understand will be discussed at the Symposium is roughly at the same level as the percentage of Americans who support transitioning the U.S. economy to 100% clean energy by 2050 or increasing federal funding for low-income communities who are disproportionately harmed by air and water pollution (sources 123). UC has research and events to advance these state and federal policy objectives. What about the Symposium do you see as controversial?

My reply: You asked what about the Symposium I see as controversial and sent links to two articles that report support for more housing (one, a poll of LA residents; the other, a Zillow survey of residents of 26 metro areas) and a third link to an article about a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, the majority of which support more housing.

Somehow you seem to have missed the broad opposition to the state of California’s legislative housing tsunami, with its exponential increase of Regional Housing Need Allocations and associated penalties for [not] meeting the RHNAs. Four cities sued SANDAG [San Diego Association of Governments] over their RHNAs. The California Supreme Court denied their appeal of the lower court’s ruling against their case, but the point is that the state’s ascendant housing policies are hotly disputed. California’s own auditor has issued a critique of HCD’s methodology to which the agency has yet to respond.

California aside, the claim that transit-oriented development will discourage driving and thereby lower greenhouse gas emissions has been contested for more than a decade. For starters, see the 2009 report from the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board.

Despite billions of dollars of public investment in transit, ridership has been flat or declining, as documented in 2018 by Michael Manville, Brian Taylor, and Evelyn Blumenberg:  All three are professors at UCLA and that Taylor is also the director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

I could cite more sources, but the above suffice to indicate the controversial nature of the topics on the 2022 Symposium agenda.

Moreover, what is (or ought to be) controversial isn’t merely the issues; it’s that the Symposium’s presenters are all on one side of the disputes.

UCLA is a distinguished public university. As such, it ought to be sponsoring a debate about controversial matters, not an exercise in indoctrination.

Question: Why is the steering committee content password-protected?

I asked that question because when it comes to major donors, the Symposium is run on a pay-to-play basis. “Sponsorship Opportunities” listed on the Symposium home page include representation on the 2022-2023 Arrowhead Steering Committee for all levels of donors.

Diamond Sponsors ($20,000-plus—$15,760 tax-deductible) got complimentary registrations (or donate to the scholarship pool), an opportunity to nominate a speaker for UCLA’s review, exclusive display of promotional materials in meeting room on the day sponsored, arrangements for a two-hour private breakout meeting for your organization, logo placement on printed symposium materials, an opportunity to network with speakers, faculty, prominent public officials and more.

Platinum Sponsors ($10,000, Gold Sponsors ($7,500), Silver Sponsors ($5,000), and Bronze Sponsors ($3,000) got “opportunities” and tax deductions gauged to the size of their donations.

The Symposium website lists two Diamond Sponsors: the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and Metro; two Platinum Sponsors: Caltrans and the Southern California Association of Governments; seven Silver Sponsors: the California Air Resources Board, Cambridge Systematics, HDR, an international firm specializing in architecture, engineering, environmental, and construction services, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, San Diego Association of Governments, WSP, an international engineering professional services firm; and one Bronze Sponsor: Fehr & Peers transportation consultants.

Matute: The Steering Committee portal is password protected because it contains information deemed to fall under Protection level 2 for UC’s Information Security Policy.

UC defines Protection Level 2 as follows:

Institutional Information and related IT Resources that may not be specifically protected by statute, regulations or other contractual obligations or mandates, but are not generally intended for public use or access. In addition, information of which unauthorized use, access, disclosure, acquisition, modification or loss could result in minor damage or small financial loss, or cause minor impact on the privacy of an individual or group.

On August 19, 2022, I submitted a Public Records Act request to UCLA asking to see  the roster of the current Arrowhead Steering Committee; the itemized budget for the 2022 Symposium all contracts between the 2022 Symposium, including contracts between UCLA and the funders of the 2022 event; all communications between the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, the Arrowhead Steering Committee, other UCLA offices, and any other parties involved in organizing, presenting, and/or funding the 2022 event.

On October 28, the UCLA Information Practices office sent me the Steering Committee roster and copies of a few cancelled checks from sponsors. Missing were the other requested documents. The cover letter stated that “[r]edaction of the exempt material is based upon Cal.Govt. Code § 6254(c), on the grounds that release of such material would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

On November 21, 48 hills attorney Tom Burke asked Robert Baldridge, the director of UCLA Information Practices office “how privacy can be used as a basis for withholding the remaining records requested.”

Robert Baldridge replied: “Please know that no documents were withheld from the records we collected from the Institute Transportation Studies. The privacy exemption was only cited with regards to the bank account numbers found on pages 4, 5, and 6 of the attached, which were redacted.”

Burke shot back:

Regarding the CPRA matter, will you please confirm that no records were withheld from the documents received from the Institute of Transportation Studies?

Reviewing the records that UCLA produced, there was no response for the following:

·      An itemized budget for the 2022 UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium;

·      Contracts between UCLA and all the presenters at the 2022 Symposium; and

·      All communications between the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, the Arrowhead Steering Committee, other UCLA offices, and any other parties involved in organizing, presenting, and/or funding the 2022 event.

Is it UCLA’s position that, after a diligent search, these records do not exist?

I look forward to your response.

Baldridge replied: “Yes, I am confirming that no records were withheld from the documents received from the Institute.”

On January 11, 2023, I emailed Matute. After summarizing the history of my Public Records Act request up to Baldridge’s statement that the University had already produced all responsive records in its possession, I asked: “Does that mean that the request budget contracts, and communications do not exist?”

Matute never replied.

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