Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tuition Increases on the Horizon at the University of California

It was bound to happen.  A few years of tuition freezes followed some of the most dramatic increases in tuition in California history, and were at least in part a response to massive student protests and increasing public awareness of just how unaffordable the University of California had become.  I also believe that in agreeing to a freeze, Regents were hoping to see a generation of student activists finish their degree and move on, effectively forcing students on campus—should they wish to resist future increases—to re-invent the wheel in the absence of any community memory of the last round of cuts and protests.
California Governor Jerry Brown, in tune to public discomfort with the creeping privatization of UC, also sought to enforce a tuition freeze.  At the same time, by failing to re-invest state funds in the University, Brown has eroded his ability and that of the legislature to influence the Regents in their future policymaking for the University.  And I suspect that suits California’s serially-irresponsible Governor just fine…
In discussing tuition increases, Napolitano referred to “arithmetic”, as though increases are inevitable.  And to a certain extent, she is correct.  Absent any interest by the state in re-investing, a growing institution needs to raise funds.
However, the “arithmetic” is tied to a political context, and Napolitano has been ineffective at altering that context.  Indeed, some of her actions, like those of her predecessors, have contributed to maintaining the existing context.
Placing all of the blame on Napolitano would be unfair because now and for the past decades, UC has faced a Republican Party hostile to the public good and public institutions.  That party has prevented the state from raising revenue to accompany the growing number of students and the increasing complexity of the institution and its mandate.  And although the GOP’s statewide influence has declined of late, it only requires one third plus one vote in one of California’s two houses of government to continue its program of divestment.
During the last four years, the Republican Party has been supported by Governor Jerry Brown, a man with zero ambition to address California’s democratic deficit and zero commitment to investing in California’s youth.  Brown has pushed a program of austerity that would make many a right-wing party proud, and has been no friend to UC.
But Napolitano and the Regents (who are probably the bigger problem) have not helped their cause.  As I have long argued, and as UC Berkeley Professor James Vernon put to the Daily Cal, when the Regents grant exorbitant salary increases to the already very well-compensated Chancellors and lower-tier administrators on campus, they are signaling to the state that their priorities are not with bringing down costs—to the public in those areas where it is possible, and to students where it is so desperately needed. 
And so when the Regents and President go to the state to request more funds, our right-wing Governor has the perfect excuse to turn them down, citing waste.  And legislators will find themselves looking over their shoulders at their constituents, who have just read a story about a member of the Board of Regents discussing the “injustice” of only paying a UC Chancellor $383,000. 
The estimated cost of attending UC is now around $30,000 per year.  Adding to the burden that students face would be immoral, unforgivable, and unconscionable, particularly in a state of such great wealth (however unequally distributed) like California. 
Napolitano’s own experience demonstrates the limits of the Regents’ faith in high-paying administrators.  The Daily Cal reported a UC student representative arguing that “Napolitano was appointed with the expectation that her experience in government…would bring in investment from the state”.  In contrast, Kevin Sabo argued, “we’ve seen a difficult relationship between the system and the Governor’s Office that more closely resembles a teenager being scolded for poor spending choices of their allowance than an entity of the state”.
Napolitano and the Regents would be in a better condition to deal with the feckless Governor who is so happy to stab California’s students in the back if they had not burnt so many bridges by resorting to tuition increases so readily in the past and by spending with such abundance on the salaries of top administrators when faculty and staff faced wage freezes and furloughs, and students were plunged deeper into debt.

UC’s crisis is California’s crisis.  But poor decisions by University leadership, both the President and the corporate-minded Regents, has exacerbated the situation.  Having ensured that they have little leverage with the state, the Regents are now likely to speed up the process of privatization, a development which should be arrested as firmly and quickly as possible if Californians want to retain a hand in managing and shaping the University system that was perhaps their most magnificent civic achievement. 

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