Published March 27, 2008

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How to Restore the Promise

Yes, California higher education is in crisis. But it’s not too late to rescue it.

Most California families consider a university degree essential to their children’s security and success. Three out of four Californians agree that the state’s higher education system is "very important" to its future. Two in three agree that we will need a higher percentage of college-educated workers in twenty years, but also believe that the cost of college prevents qualified, motivated students from pursuing degrees. Half of California adults call this a "big problem." [1] Neglect and mismanagement of higher education threaten California’s economic potential, social peace and international standing.

California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education created the world’s best higher education system by uniting full access with top educational standards. This combination requires public investment in core instruction and research: it is precisely what private institutions cannot provide on the necessary social scale. Since 2000, however, the State has slashed real-dollar support per UC and CSU student by nearly 30 percent; by the close of the decade, cuts will exceed 40 percent.[2]

As a direct result, the universities have been forced to break the Master Plan’s promises of full access to top-quality education and fully-funded enrollment growth. UC and CSU are now charging an increasingly unrepresentative student body segregated into rich and poor campuses more money for lower quality. Objective measures of this decay include larger class sizes, fewer tenure-track faculty, less hands-on laboratory time, and declines in the graduate programs so important to developing California’s next generation of innovators and leaders.

To regain public investment, we must restore public trust and public access.

The universities’ 2004 "Compact" with Governor Schwarzenegger fundamentally altered the Master Plan without public debate, legislative deliberation or discussion by UC or CSU governing boards. The deal formalized declining State funding for UC and CSU. It deliberately shifted the burden onto California students and their families, dictating student fee hikes at twice the inflation rate. It also committed UC and CSU to seek out private funds "to support basic programs." Meanwhile, supercharged compensation for senior managers has eroded public confidence in the system as a whole.

We cannot renew public investment for California higher education unless we give every California family a stake in the system by restoring full access and unless we regain their trust by restoring accountability. The public-spirited legacy of generations will be squandered if the best of the system is financially out of reach for most citizens and increasingly controlled by corporate funders. The people of California will support higher education if it serves us all again.

No "private" remedies exist for California’s disinvestment in higher education.

In May 2006, the University of California Academic Senate analyzed the University’s financial situation [3] and concluded that private sources cannot replace State support for public higher education’s core public missions: instruction, public interest research, and public service. Private partnerships may support some specific, valued activities but they ignore others, and give special interests more influence on how public dollars are spent.

GOAL: Return higher education to the educational quality and financial sustainability that existed in 2000—the last year that public support-per-student and the balance between State and tuition funding were at healthy levels.

How to restore public access… and public investment:

How to restore public trust… and accountability:

To rebuild popular trust in a system too often abused, UC and CSU governance must be reformed to make it accountable again, while maintaining the independence essential to their academic mission.

State conflict of interest (and conflict of commitment) laws should be stringently enforced and extended to university administrators and Regents who deal with privately funded projects and public-private partnerships. Such partnerships can also create institutional conflicts of interest for UC and CSU, which should not be allowed to distort academic resource and hiring decisions.

As faculty, we see the mounting threats to learning and research close up, but we also see that solutions are possible. No institution, and no society, can nurture excellence unless it creates genuine opportunity. For decades, California showed the world how to grow and prosper by investing in human beings. We, as faculty, are dedicated to this vision. As a state, California must renew the promise — and keep it.

1. Public Policy Institute of California (2007)
2. "The Cuts Report" (2008)
3. "Current Budget Trends and The Future of the University of California" (2006)