Earlier this month, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced that she would be seeking sustained, multi-year tuition increases from the Regents of the UC. These amounted to increases of 5% each year over a five-year period.
Such increases in tuition at an already expensive institution represent a disservice to California’s youth and a discredit to an institution that is supposed to embody a public mission and public support for young Californians. They represent a fateful step in the long-term process of de facto privatization, long underway at UC, but seldom mentioned and undebated within the statewide community that the University is meant to serve.
The Council of UC Faculty Associations released a statement regarding the tuition increases. Unlike earlier efforts to resist tuition hikes, which focused on campus administrators who have no control and little input into decisions about tuition rates, the UC faculty statement targeted one individual who has a great deal of influence over the economics of the University.
California Governor Jerry Brown, elected this month to an historic fourth term, is a politician with an historic aversion for accepting responsibility for problems that fall under his remit. A pioneer of the empty “gesture politics” that now define our impoverished political landscape, and a proponent of his pet method of governance that he calls “Creative Inaction”, the Governor has defined himself as a fiscal hawk. Casting himself as a conservative, Brown is more interested in closing budget gaps without addressing either the state’s democratic deficit (brought on by undemocratic supermajority rules and an over-burdened constitution) or the social and economic chasms which define the lives of many Californians.
To this end, he has spent four years pushing public austerity in a state possessed of extraordinary private wealth. He has resorted to ballot-box budgeting instead of exhibiting firm leadership. The University of California, and its sister systems of higher education, and through them California’s hundreds of thousands of students, have been victims of Governor Brown’s serial irresponsibility.
UC Faculty pointed out that UC’s budget has been cut by over one-third since the 2001-2 year, and that funding under Brown is less than it was when Arnold Schwarzenegger left office, in spite of Brown’s risible claims to have presided over a “California Comeback”.
And all of this while “the university’s student body has brown by nearly one-third…as UC continued to meet its Master Plan obligations”, obligations on which the state and public of California have steadily chosen to renege. The consequences on campuses have included “reducing budgets for teaching and research, boosting class sizes, shifting administrative tasks to faculty (leaving less time for students and research), admitting more out-of-state students, and massive tuition hikes that tripled tuition in 15 years”.
Defenders of Governor Brown point to California’s budget woes, the virtual veto power granted the Republican Party by Prop 13’s undemocratic supermajority requirements, and the passage of Prop 30 (only 4.5% of funds from which went to UC).
But there have been many points at which the Governor could have taken strong action to secure greater funding for the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges.
-In 2010 Brown, who sold himself as an “expert hand” with deep understanding of the state, might have run on a platform of political reform in order to redress the democratic deficit that prevents progressive majorities of up to 65% in the Senate and Assembly (their current strengths) from raising revenue for a public sector that benefits all Californians.
-In 2010 Brown might have sponsored initiatives to restore funding to UC in conjunction with his gubernatorial bid.
-In 2012, instead of a temporary tax that continues to subject California’s mangled tax base to economic fluctuations, Brown might have promoted rational reform of the state’s capacity to raise revenue.
-Two-thirds to three-quarters of Californians support significant reform to Prop 13 according to recent polls. Brown could have pursued such reform, which might have unleashed a flow of funding from the commercial real estate sector (dramatically under-taxed), much of which could have been directed to UC.
-After the 2012 election, Brown could have used Democratic supermajorities to pursue a progressive program of reinvigorating the public sphere that has historically fueled the state’s economic engine, helped to address economic inequality, and provided a bulwark for poorer Californians in hard times. Instead, Brown has equated students requesting restored funding for public education to Wall Street bankers asking for “bailouts”.
-During the 2014 election campaign, during which he relentlessly avoided questions about a fourth-term agenda, Brown could have used his considerable political capital to help other Democrats secure office (and perhaps legislative supermajorities) instead of avoiding public scrutiny and indulging in out-of-state getaways to college reunions on the East Coast.
-Instead of vacuuming up resources from progressives—some of which he used to push regressive ballot initiatives, and others of which he has hoarded away—during the 2014 campaign, Brown could have laid out a progressive policy agenda centred on the revitalization of public higher education.
Some of these moments represented more opportune or more responsible options than others, but there have been no shortage of opportunities for action to preserve the public character of our universities.
Over the past four years, the inaction of the Governor—whose inaction 36 years ago helped precipitate the passage of Prop 13 which has done untold damage to California’s public education sector—has created conditions in which even sympathetic UC administrators feel pressured to increase tuition. There are certainly issues with the compensation for upper level administrators, and with the enthusiasm of many administrators for de facto privatization.
But the real conditions that are impoverishing UC occur at the state level, and no one is more responsible for maintaining those conditions over the past four years than Governor Jerry Brown.
This week, the Presidents of Caltech and Stanford entered the debate, calling for a restoration of funding for public higher education in California. In a joint op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, the education leaders reminded Californians and their government that “much of the world class research conducted” on their own private campuses “is inextricably linked with research emanating from UC. If California is to remain an economic dynamo, then it needs the full capability of its research universities to be well supported”.
More poignantly, the leadership of the state’s preeminent private institutions paid tribute to the public mission of the UC:
“The educational mission of our institutions is equally important, fostering an engaged citizenry and educating the next generation of talent for our state and our world. Although private research universities such as ours make significant contributions to education, we cannot match the sheer scale of public universities like the University of California. Caltech and Stanford together enroll roughly 18,000 students; UC enrolls nearly 240,000. California benefits when many of its young people have access to the quality higher-education opportunities that UC offers”.
California is plagued by a cynical and disinterested citizenry which, although a major party in governing the state through the initiative process, has historically declined to acknowledge its part in unmaking our state’s tremendous social democratic experiment, fuelled more than anything else by public higher education.
But the state is also plagued by an absence of leadership, embodied by our current Governor’s refusal to engage the state’s public in an honest conversation about the relationship between their prosperity, security, and health, and the well-being of institutions like UC. Governor Brown should use the coming four years to heed the words of UC faculty and the leadership of the state’s other great universities, and work to reduce tuition to levels that make UC a viable option for every qualified young Californian.