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Pawning the Jewel

September 29, 2009
by John Wildermuth
a photograph of students

Why did the average Californian meet recent threats to the UC system with silence?

When State Senator Leland Yee ’70, a San Francisco Democrat, suggested last May that the state legislature and not the Board of Regents should have the final say over how the University of California system is run, there was plenty of snickering among the chattering class of newspaper editorialists, university leaders, and education experts.

One Southern California newspaper proclaimed, “This proposal is just plain crazy.” “Ridiculous, silly stuff,” harrumphed Richard Blum, former chair of the Board of Regents. “A nonstarter” and “attempted power grab,” sniffed a statement from the UC Office of the President.

High-profile alumni including San Francisco businessman Warren Hellman ’55, former Board of Regents Chair William Coblentz ’43, and Intel cofounder Gordon Moore ’50 quickly put together a group to fight the proposal. Their June 18 open letter to the Legislature called Yee’s bill, SCA 21, “an extremely troubling proposal that would irreparably harm one of California’s greatest academic, scientific, cultural, and economic assets, and our state in general.” The bill, despite the backing of a bipartisan group of legislators, was quickly and quietly shelved.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told The San Diego Union-Tribune after burying the bill in his own Rules Committee. “The state government has enough trouble … managing what we are required to manage.”

Look at another recent threat. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger needed to trim state spending to close a $25.1 billion budget gap, the UC system was a prime target. The loss of $800 million in state funds over two years has forced the University of California to boost student fees, furlough workers, and cut enrollment. There is nothing new about the loss of state dollars. Since 1990, state general fund support for the UC system has plummeted, dropping from $15,860 per student down to an estimated $7,680 this year.

But missing from all the hullabaloo surrounding Yee’s bill was any sense of outrage from the state’s grassroots, the 38 million Californians whose taxes support the UC system, whose children go to its universities, and whose support is desperately needed at a time when the schools face growing challenges from all sides. Where is the outrage from regular Californians? Where were the thousands of protesters from across the state marching in front of the state Capitol, chanting “Save Our University” and “Protect Our Children’s Future”?

Instead, the protests were at the July regents’ meeting in San Francisco. Outside the UCSF building at Mission Bay, UC workers bused in by their unions marched in protest of the furloughs, while inside, university professors warned that higher pay was absolutely necessary to attract top faculty. Neither argument is likely to get much traction among Californians facing their own financial problems, especially those who know their children will never be able to afford the estimated $28,312 it will cost to attend Berkeley and live on campus this year.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the late Clark Kerr helped put together California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, it was designed to make a low-cost college education available to every qualified student in the state. The idea of opening the door to a world-class education for anyone with the grades and brains to take advantage of it stirred California’s residents as well as its politicians. The plan was so popular, it rolled through the Legislature with only one dissenting vote. The master plan made the UC system the people’s university, where the children of lawyers and businessmen competed on equal terms with the children of farmers and railroad workers for the chance to be at the forefront of California’s glowing future.

For John Garamendi and the other kids at rural Calaveras High School in 1962, the UC system was the Holy Grail of education. A chance to go the University of California “was the way up, the opportunity to succeed in life,” said Garamendi, California’s lieutenant governor and thus a member of the Board of Regents. “And it was free. If you could find a place to sleep and scrounge enough money for something to eat, you could go to the university.” That was when student fees at the UC campuses were less than $200 a year. This year that number is $9,748 and only headed higher, as student fees are called on to cover an increasingly large part of the university’s budget.

Even as the fees went up, the governor called for eliminating Cal Grants, an important source of college money for many lowand moderate-income students hoping for a UC education. That student-aid money was saved in July’s final budget deal, but the very fact that Schwarzenegger listed it for the budget ax shows how little worry he had about the political consequences of cutting that money.

“If you don’t have parents to help, it’s difficult to go to UC,” argued Yee. “There’s a whole segment of Californians no longer able to get there, and it’s the middle class I worry about most.”

Students in the 1960s and 1970s knew that if they had the grades, they also stood a pretty good chance of getting a spot at the campus they wanted, which meant they could save money by living at home and commuting. But by 1989, Berkeley was accepting only 40 percent of those who applied. Fast-forward to 2008, and the acceptance rate goes down to about 22 percent. Plenty of top Bay Area students with their hopes fixed on Berkeley find themselves instead shunted to Merced and Riverside, schools many miles from their homes.

With the rising cost of a UC education, growing selectivity at the various campuses, and the eagerness of University officials to compare their schools to elite private universities like Harvard and Yale rather than to other public universities, it’s little wonder that more and more Californians are thinking that they and their children don’t have a place at UC. And if those people don’t feel a link to the UC system, why should they be concerned about the troubles it faces?

When the state approved the master plan, California students were grouped by academic achievement, with the University system taking the top 12.5 percent, state colleges drawing from the top third, and community colleges educating the rest of the state’s students. But money now is playing an ever-growing role in that selection process, as many students opt for community colleges not because they can’t qualify for the UC system, but because they can’t afford it. As a regent, Garamendi has fought against the fee increases University officials insist are needed in the face of continuing state cutbacks. He’s worried that UC is losing public support every time rising costs put it out of range for yet more potential students.

The UC system “is being privatized, student fee increase by student fee increase, and every increase takes pressure off the Legislature” to provide the money needed for top-flight universities, Garamendi said.

But appeals to the 49-year-old master plan aren’t going to convince politicians to find more money for the system at a time when the state’s economic pie is shrinking. They have to be shown that financial support for the University is a priority for the voters who elect them.

Californians may talk about the importance of a world-class education, but they aren’t always willing to pay for it. A poll last November by the Public Policy Institute of California found that while 95 percent of those surveyed believed California’s higher education system is important to the state’s economic future, only 44 percent would accept an increase in taxes to maintain the current state funding for the schools.

“We need to remind people of the value of higher education,” said Jason Spencer, executive director of The Politics of Trust Network, which is involved in a grassroots effort to update the California master plan. “Our prosperity is due to higher education. To reverse our commitment now because the budget is tight in the short term will have disastrous results long term.” If people are going to get behind the UC system, they also have to believe that their voices are being heard by University leaders and that their concerns about what is important for UC’s future are recognized, Spencer added.

That’s something University officials are beginning to realize. The political clamor over the salaries of two new chancellors, along with memories of none-too-distant controversies over executive pay and lax oversight, have not helped convince either voters or legislators that increased support for UC will be money well spent.

“This is a time of peril for the University we all love,” UC President Mark Yudof and a trio of regents said in their July 10 Open Letter to UC Alumni and Friends. “To those who complain the University has been bloated, wasteful, we say this is a new day.”

It’s a new day for California, too—one that features a state very different demographically, culturally, and economically from the one Clark Kerr looked out on when he put together the original master plan, the one that won almost unanimous support from the Legislature. But that landmark plan for California’s future received its overwhelming backing only because the politicians knew that voters across the state were behind it. Lawmakers, by definition, know which way the political winds are blowing. Today, unless there is support from Californians rich and poor who still feel that they and their children have a stake in the UC system, the University will continue to struggle for the public dollars it needs to survive.

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