University California System Funding: Less Can’t Masquerade as More

EducationIn California today a dangerously small revenue base is perceived as an irreversible fact of nature rather than a reversible artifact of politics. Can this perception change?

Imagine the role that the administrative leadership of University of California and the newly created “Commission on the Future of the University of California” could play if, instead of capitulating to the decline of a university that is a model for the world, they sought to educate the public about how crucial the health of the university is to the long-term social and economic health of the state.

The Commission, brainchild of Regents’ Chair Russell Gould, could take the lead in forging the public consensus necessary to halt the erosion of state support of public education. Specifically, members could endorse viable alternatives to the highly damaging and economically counterproductive cuts to UC and its sister CSU and Community College systems.

What role would be more natural to them than using the current crisis as an opportunity to educate their fellow Californians as to the need to develop a stable tax system that can adequately fund our common needs (education, social services, infrastructure), without veering into boom and bust?

There is no simple cure-all. Workable, equitable measures include imposing taxes on oil extraction (California is alone among the oil states in not doing so), closing corporate tax loopholes, increasing licensing fees, and raising top tier income taxes rates (on incomes above $300,000/$600,000) from 9.3 percent to 11 percent – that is, back to the level supported by the Pete Wilson administration. These measures alone would raise more than enough to cover the entire kindergarten through university cuts of $9.3 billion.

Deeper reforms would restructure income, property and capital gains taxes to ensure a less variable revenue stream that is more equitable for the vast majority of Californians.

Yet to date neither the regents, UC President Mark G. Yudof, nor the 10 UC chancellors have challenged Gould’s acquiescence to the permanent large-scale decline in public funding for UC. And so our chancellor, Michael Drake, faces the impossible task of maintaining excellence in the face of $77 million in additional cuts that the campus “must” absorb.

Gould blithely claims that the UC can “maintain access, quality and affordability in a time of diminishing resources” by the miracle of new “educational delivery models,” such as online courses.

But how can this be done? Imagine overcrowded classrooms, reduced expectations for students, and the substitution of computers for teachers, and you’re in the ballpark. As for “distance-learning” options, the Department of Education estimates the startup costs of online education at $1 million per new course, more than many endowed chairs and enough to “start up” a junior professor for scores of courses over 40 years of teaching.

What looms is the transformation of a world-class university into either a factory for BA students or an online correspondence school. All at double the current tuition.

The reality that the leadership of the UC seems determined to conceal from the public is that when resources are so drastically cut, it is simply impossible to “maintain access, quality and affordability.” Less cannot masquerade as more, or as functionally the same. Less will be less.

At best, California may soon be left with a university that is public in name only, with most of its budget derived from prohibitively high “market-rate” tuition fees and a deliberate focus on higher paying out-of-state and overseas students at the expense of California’s youth.

This is the “University of Michigan model,” increasingly advocated by upper administration. Not only would it mark an abandonment of UC’s historic mandate to offer a first-rate education to all Californians, it would only work if professors don’t abandon ship first. Just last week, the Austin paper, “The Statesman” called on the University of Texas to “capitalize on California’s budget shortfall” by hiring away UC’s “most important asset: its world class talent.” Almost the same day, President Yudof confirmed that “UC, long a draw for global talent, appears to be experiencing a ‘brain drain’.”

As in so many other contexts, effectively privatizing a public good will end up raising its price while lowering quality. And what is true for the flagship University of California is true even more brutally for the Cal States, the Community Colleges, and kindergarten through 12th grade educational systems. California will teach fewer and fewer students and teach them less and less well.

Students are being hurt already and will suffer even more, while the state will find itself short hundreds of thousands of college-educated workers necessary to move back toward prosperity. Anyone who argues otherwise is kidding you.

It seems all too clear that neither the Regents nor the California legislature have the stomach to fight the privatization-by-starvation that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and UC President Yudof offer as the starting point for any move to reimagine higher education in California, a view which our university leadership appears to share. But if they are resigned to such a future, the faculty, staff and students are not. We will not let this great university go down without a fight.

Already, faculty across the university systems are taking action. The faculty leadership at several campuses, including Santa Cruz and Irvine, have endorsed scheduling furlough days to be taken collectively in order to ensure the highest public visibility and impact and to create a forum for public discussion of the crisis.

Other campuses, such as UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside, joined by their Cal State University colleagues, are organizing teach-ins and creating ad hoc committees and websites to educate the public.

We hope that Chancellor Drake joins us and many of his UC faculty colleagues system wide, in resisting the Commission’s unquestioning acceptance of what Chair Gould admits is the “long-term pattern of disinvestment” in post-secondary education by the state of California. Further, any commission on UC’s future needs to be open to a full range of the stakeholders in that future.

UC’s future cannot be left to administrators who don’t understand that disinvesting in post-secondary education is disinvesting in California’s future. If we work together, there may yet be a chance to save the crown jewel of California from the pawnshop.

Glenn Levine, Mark LeVine (pictured), Jack Miles, Jane O. Newman

The authors, professors in UCI’s School of Humanities, are part of a group of faculty, students and staff who are fighting to preserve UC’s core educational mission and philosophy.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

Published by the LA Progressive on September 3, 2009
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