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In the fifty years since California adopted its Master Plan for higher education the state has blossomed into a world-renowned center of creative innovation and enterprise. So successful has been California’s three-tiered system of community colleges, state universities, and research institutions that it has served as a model for other states and nations. At the time of its construction it was the most ambitious network of public colleges and universities found anywhere in the world. And although recently they have weathered a multi-year budgetary crisis severer than any previous downturn these colleges and universities still hold the key to the state’s future.

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The spirit of the Master Plan was in tune with the earlier idealism of the GI Bill of Rights, which Congress passed to enable working-class war veterans to attend college for the first time. Through investing in higher education and making it affordable and accessible to everyone, California’s visionary leaders built the infrastructure to educate a generation of teachers, medical professionals, scientists, and entrepreneurs who went on to unleash a wave of breakthroughs that transformed the Golden State. Any honest appraisal of the role the Community Colleges, California State Universities, and the University of California have played in these achievements offers us a clear picture of what drives California’s economy. Entire industries have located here just to have access to its highly skilled workforce.

We hear from all corners that young people today will have to be more adaptable and highly skilled than their parents’ generation to compete in a globalized economy. For the vast majority of California’s students the relatively low cost and accessibility of the Community Colleges, CSUs, and UCs provide the only viable option for developing the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed. Therefore these schools have come to reflect California’s rich cultural diversity. Not only do we have the largest public university system in the country but also the most racially and ethnically diverse. While a quarter of the students nationwide enrolled in a public 4-year college identify themselves as members of a racial or ethnic minority, in California it’s well over half.

In recent years the unyielding torrent of dire economic forecasts and budgetary constraints have tempted some administrators to follow a “business model” of education aimed to push students through faster. While “efficiency” is always a laudable goal these pressures have given rise on some campuses to attempts to move the “delivery” of the curricula in the direction of the for-profit “colleges” with greater reliance on on-line courses, fewer general education requirements, and efforts to strip the faculty of shared governance rights. This mimicking of the for-profits is problematic because most of them perform far worse than the public system in terms of graduation rates, debt-to-student ratios, job placement, and imparting critical thinking skills.

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A professor of education at the University of Southern California, William Tierney, has even championed the idea of selling off the CSU to the University of Phoenix as a cost-cutting measure. He wrote a guest editorial for theS acramento Bee in October 2009 titled: “Will CSU’s Motto Someday Be: ‘I Am a Phoenix?’” With proposals like these swirling around from “experts” in the field of education, the students, faculty, alumni and their families who have benefited from California’s public colleges and universities must be ever vigilant in pushing back against “reforms” that threaten to undermine their quality.

Fortunately, even many private colleges recognize the folly of a crisis-driven pathwaytoward privatization. “All of the state’s institutions of higher education work together in a synergistic system that has historically worked to the benefit of students, families, the workforce and ultimately, the economy,” said Karen Bergh, director of public relations for the University of Redlands. “Conversely, what hurts the publics, hurts us.”

Yet the class, racial and ethnic background of the student body might make it seem easier to save money by lowering the quality in ways that would not be tolerated at private universities that cater to more affluent students. One organization consistently lobbied the Legislature to protect and strengthen the CSU (as well as the rest of the system) is the California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents the CSU faculty.

“Public higher education truly is the engine of economic growth and social equity in California,” said Lil Taiz, a CSU, L.A. history professor and the president of the CFA . “The CSU prepares the people who do exactly the type of work we need to meet the state’s human infrastructure needs today and into the future: engineers, teachers, nurses, tech workers & so many others.”

We mustn’t allow our current economic conditions to impose a scarcity model where we begin to cut corners and narrow down the original mission. We’ve got to stop the hemorrhaging of money going to these institutions for they are our ticket out of the current economic slump. Passing Proposition 30 this November would be a first step for Californians who wish to reinvigorate our colleges and universities after years of destruction.

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I have been astonished to see how fast and careless some baby-boomer administrators and ambitious faculty members can be when aggressively pushing “reforms” that would virtually gut the university system their parents’ generation built. Any “reforms” of the curriculum or the “deliverology” of education at California’s public colleges and universities that are imposed under the current climate of economic and budgetary crisis should be as carefully considered as they would be in times of relative prosperity. Drastic changes imposed and implemented in times of distress will always have the odor of desperation to them.

The vaunted “Spellings Commission,” like the vast majority of policies for which we can thank the George W. Bush Administration, is a policy prescription disaster. It looks at higher education as nothing more than an applied knowledge factory to serve corporate America. It narrowly focuses on drilling college students with cookie-cutter curricula, high-stakes standardized testing, and treating professors as interchangeable cogs in an educational machine. The report itself is filled with liberal-sounding window dressing about the importance of access to higher education, but these liberal buzz words and clichés about “diversity” and “access” must not be allowed to mask the fact that in Margaret Spellings’ America there’s no place for the liberal arts and humanities, critical thinking skills, or citizenship.

The report tells us more for what it omits rather than what it includes. Secretary Spellings, in the great Republican Texan tradition, has no interest in helping students become better citizens through a grounding in the arts, literature, or humanities; even physical education is looked upon as an unnecessary extravagance to the task at hand: training a bunch of young people with applied knowledge and skills that contribute directly to economic growth, profit-making, “free enterprise.”

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It’s funny to hear Republicans prattle on about how important to them is “American Exceptionalism” only to see them embrace the Spellings’ Commission recommendations as sacrosanct, which throw that “exceptionalism” out the window, and betray everything that is truly “exceptional” about the American system of liberal arts higher education that dates back to a generation before the time of John Dewey.

There’s an often overlooked but crucial role these public colleges and universities play that can affect our societal well being even more than their economic benefits: They give our young people the background knowledge and critical thinking skills to become engaged and thoughtful citizens. In our complex political environment, where misleading ballot initiatives and candidates backed by big money dominate our state and federal elections, the solid grounding of our younger voters in an understanding of our nation’s history and its democratic machinery toward a more inclusive type of citizenship is today more important than ever.

Like many of my students I’m a native Californian and the first in my family to go to college. I’m also the product of all three tiers of California’s public higher education system. If it hadn’t been for a Community College located in my hometown I never would have been able to get my education off the ground. For me the value of these colleges and universities is not an abstraction. They opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed.

Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Let’s continue to protect and nurture these vital public resources that have served the state so well over the past 50 years, stay true to their original vision, and make sure future generations of California’s students have the same opportunity I had to fulfill their dreams.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo's Blog

Posted: Friday, 3 August 2012