Saturday, February 28, 2015

Californians Need to Accept Responsibility for their Universities

The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that “California voters overwhelming oppose a tuition increase at University of California campuses, even if that forces the colleges to cut spending or accept more out-of-state students who pay higher fees”.
The poll also discovered that Californians believe that their state “has done a poor job of making a college education affordable”, and think that California Governor Jerry Brown is correct to call out the UC Regents and UC President for their efforts to raise tuition.
The poll finds California’s voters at their most typically obtuse and obdurate.  They oppose tuition increases, but apparently don’t realize that tuition increases have been necessary over the years because they have refused to provide UC with sufficient funding, while simultaneously asking the University to strive for excellence in research and public service. 
Taking more students, and taking those students from an increasingly diverse state costs money.  Performing world class research, preserving world class faculty, and maintaining world class campuses require money.  I hope that many Californians would agree that those are worthwhile ambitions, in contrast to the state’s half-witted Governor who wants a leaner, meaner university that shoves students in and out the door, giving them a tattered product instead of a rigorous learning experience.  Brown is dismissive of the UC’s research and its capacity to transform the lives and livelihoods of Californians.  Californians, I hope, feel differently.
But if Californians agree that those ambitions are worthwhile—excellence in education and research—they have a funny way of showing it.  Older generations in particular—the very people who attended UC for free or close to it—have consistently opposed creating a tax system that would allocate sufficient funding to UC for the institution to perform its mission for subsequent generations.  Having climbed up a ladder constructed by others to a position of success or at least security, those generations are now breaking off the rungs to prevent younger Californians making the same ascent.
If the state has done a poor job of making college affordable, that is to a large degree because voters have rejected one effort after another to raise the serious kind of revenue necessary to keeping UC truly public—that is, an institution supported by the collective for the good of the state’s youth.
Voters have not hesitated to discipline legislators and Governors who have argued for the need to reinvest in our public sphere, and voters have conditioned politicians in the state to steer clear of reforming the tax system or our political structure, moves which are seen as assaults on the surplus wealth of the upper-middle classes and the affluent—the people who, having benefited from a vibrant public sphere in their youths, are now content to trash and de-fund the same sphere.
UC could certainly manage its resources more wisely.  The past years have seen the unseemly bloating of an administrative class, the primary purpose of which often seems to shoot their institution in the foot by granting themselves outrageous bonuses and pay raises at the same time that they raise tuition for students and request more funds from the state. 
The basic immorality and strategic stupidity of the market approach adopted by UC’s administration should not obscure the fact that cutting administrative salaries would not make up for the systematic shortfall in public funding the system has experienced over the years. 
Voters support Jerry Brown’s arguments about the University of California because those are arguments that let them and the Governor—long a foe of public higher education, in stark contrast to his father—off the hook for their serial irresponsibility and their failure to maintain the system of higher education that is in their trust. 
But many of those voters might support Brown because it has been so long since they have been presented with any alternatives to the smaller, crueler state that they live in today.  It has been a long time since the state experienced a political movement in favour of creating a more communitarian California, one in which citizens realize that as a matter of moral fact as well as of practicality, they have a responsibility to one another and to future generations. 

It has been a long time since the state’s leadership expressed confidence in the ability of the state government—the legislature, the executive, and the voters who exercise outsized power through the state’s initiative process—to play an active, respectful role in the lives of citizens, promoting the kinds of institutions and investments that have the potential to lead to equality and justice in California.  I see no such movements or leaders on the horizon, but students, staff, and faculty at California’s universities should be thinking about how to work with those other communities who suffer from the absence of equality and justice, and to forge such a movement, to reclaim the state’s public sphere. 

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