Fortunately, this is a choice that voters have not yet made and can still resist
By Robert Meister, President of the Council of UC Faculty Associations.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle Jan 15, 2006.
The more significant issue is the rationale itself: the goal of privatizing higher education in California, which was made explicit in the recent “compact” between University of California President Robert Dynes, California State University Chancellor Charles Reed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The compact substantially cut base public funding for higher education, required both UC and Cal State to impose large and rapid tuition increases as a permanent source of operating revenues, and committed our universities (in the compact’s own words) to “continue to seek additional private resources and maximize other fund sources available to the University to support basic programs.”
Many of UC’s recent statements defending high salaries and generous perks for top executives presuppose that their primary job is to offset a proportional decline in state funding with increased reliance on user fees, private donations and “partnerships” with for-profit corporations. These statements implicitly compare the leaders of public higher education not with other public officials but with private sector entrepreneurs who expect to be rewarded for their deal-making skills. UC’s emerging rationale for treating high administrators like corporate CEOs assumes that at their level the decision to privatize has already happened.
Fortunately, this is a choice that Californians have not yet made and can still resist.
With no public debate, the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which has provided the people of California with high-quality low-cost universities financed through taxes, is being subverted by decisions (large and small) that assume the trend toward privatization to be inevitable. Most Californians are unaware that in the compact with Schwarzenegger, Dynes agreed that UC would raise tuition every year at least as fast as the rate of income growth in California (8 percent a year in recent years), and will be allowed to raise tuition up to 10 percent. At current rates of increase, UC tuition would exceed $11,000 a year by the time the compact ends in 2011.
In contrast, Schwarzenegger agreed to increase state funding by only 3 to 4 percent annually. The governor’s post-Christmas decision to “buy out” next year’s tuition increase does not cancel the compact. It provides California students with an election-year gift, but the governor gave no assurance that the gift would last beyond this year. That means the compact’s target of an $11,000 UC tuition by 2011 could still be reached on schedule.
Employee organizations are being told that, as state support plateaus, a rapid and permanent increase in UC’s tuition is the only feasible way to improve the relatively low salaries that most faculty and staff receive.
Many UC employees, however, are troubled by this argument. We know that income growth is a reality only for the wealthiest Californians, and fear that, if high tuition deters enrollment by qualified students from middle income families, this changing demographic will become an argument to charge UC’s increasingly wealthy student body even more — and not (as it should be) a reason to reverse course.
Despite the modest increases in state support provided by the compact, Californians can thus expect the shift away from public funding to accelerate. This shift will make UC more an instrument of the rich and powerful and less an engine of greater social equality.
Privatization means that UC leaders already skew public spending for the sake of small, and often speculative, gains from private donors and partners. One example is the possible distortion of research, hiring and firing at UC Berkeley to favor the now-discontinued partnership with the drugmaker Novartis. Another example is the decision by UC Santa Cruz administrators to offer below-cost training programs to Silicon Valley corporations, a loss-leader that has so far cost UC Santa Cruz $20 million without resulting in significant corporate partnerships or donations.
UC’s new contract to manage Los Alamos in partnership with Bechtel, BWX Technologies and Washington Group International may be the latest example of corporate gain at the university’s expense. Administrators will argue that UC protects itself in such deals by not allowing its private sector partners to dictate conditions on teaching and research, and by requiring that inside decision-makers disclose personal conflicts of interest. There are no rules, however, limiting the power of UC’s administrators to make voluntary hiring and spending decisions that serve the present and prospective interests of its corporate partners and donors.
Quite the contrary, the logic of privatization impels UC administrators to use public funds to increase private funding opportunities, even if the public might not benefit. Unfortunately, this approach to UC’s management gives the state a further reason to reduce public funds and to demand that the industries benefiting from UC’s activities pay more for that privilege. The built-in tendency of privatization to accelerate makes it difficult to limit or to stop.
There are, however, good reasons for democratic citizens to reject the privatization of those public institutions most deeply charged with principles of political and social equality.
Many citizens would criticize a legislator who redirects public spending to advance the interest of private entities that have donated to his or her campaign, or have funded extraordinary expenses (such as travel and entertainment) that the government will not reimburse. When we discover such legislative conduct, we call it corrupt because we do not want a privatized legislature, even though we know that legislators are underpaid in comparison to the private sector lobbyists they could become, and even though they must raise privately a large part of the funding needed for their campaigns.
Should the citizens of California apply a different standard to our universities because Schwarzenegger expects UC’s public spending decisions to subsidize the private interests that it hopes to tap for funds?
No one has yet seen fit to ask the people of California whether the distinction between public and private higher education is worth preserving, but this year’s unexpected pause in tuition growth provides an opportunity to reinstate the Master Plan’s principles before it is too late. If Californians would commit to supporting public higher education at a level appropriate to the state’s expanding population and economy, they could expect UC’s leaders to act like public servants, rather than business entrepreneurs, and exhibit principled independence from private sector interests.
Before privatization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Californians still have time to reconsider. Otherwise, the people of California will hear even more examples of troubling behavior by UC administrators.