Money needed in the Golden State

October 8, 2009

Living in California, you quickly get accustomed to political mortification. From electing an Austrian action movie hero Governor to passing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage after the state’s Supreme Court had already legalized it, California is not exactly an advertisement for the democratic process. But no political disappointment has had such a direct impact on my family as the $800 million budget cuts the state legislature imposed on the University of California system this summer.
My family is about as invested in the UC system as imaginable. Both my parents have worked as professors at UC Riverside for 15 years, and my brother just started his first year at Berkeley this August. The $800 million cut, which translates to furloughs for faculty and staff and a 32 percent tuition increase next year, is squeezing my family from both ends. Not only are my parents’ salaries taking hits, they’ll also be paying thousands more than they expected for my  brother’s education.
While California’s public elementary, middle, and high schools are underwhelming, consistently placing in the high forties on national rankings, the UC system has long been a heartening example of the potential of public higher education. Two UC campuses, Berkeley and Los Angeles, are in the top 25 of U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of national universities, and, until now, the UC system’s tuition has stayed in the four-figure range. Few other states offer such world-class academic opportunities at such an affordable rate.
But these cuts put California’s tradition of excellent public higher education in jeopardy. The huge tuition hikes threaten to edge out lower and middle class students, the real backbone of the UC system. The cuts also necessitated a hiring freeze and the elimination of crucial academic resources. My mother’s department, for example, is currently agonizing over how to cope with the elimination of exam readers and increasing class sizes. By stripping away academic resources and not allowing for the revitalization of the faculty, the state is not only increasing the cost of a UC education, but also decreasing its quality.
Although the economic crisis was the immediate cause of the cuts, they are part of a larger trend of overthrowing public funding from the UC system. In 2004, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the UC system struck a deal allowing for a one-time funding cut of $372 million with the promise of funding increases until 2011. Now it’s clear that the Governor and legislature won’t be upholding their end of that bargain. This new cut is pernicious on its own, but even more disconcerting in that it highlights the state’s shaky commitment to education.
While some in the UC system see privatization as an inevitability—UC President Mark Yudof recently formed the “UC Commission on the Future” to explore how best to deal with dwindling state support—many students, faculty, and staff are resisting. On September 24, the first day of classes for most UC campuses, opponents of the cuts held system-wide walkouts and teach-ins. The protestors demanded more transparency from the administration on how the cuts are being made, asked the administration to defend the salaries of the lowest-paid staff members, and affirmed the need to keep the UC system publicly funded and affordable.
While my family supported the protests—my brother acted as a dorm organizer, going door-to-door and asking his hallmates to come out, and my mother made her class that day optional—they believe the only real way to save the UC system is to go through Sacramento. And they’re right: while rallying for transparency and on-campus awareness is a good start, the only real way to resolve the structural problem of inadequate state funding is to lobby the legislature, the governor, and voters.
Someone needs to publicly, emphatically defend the value of keeping the UC system affordable, accessible and publicly funded—and that’s certainly not coming from the widely reviled Yudof. In a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, Yudof seemed completely resigned to privatization, comparing the UC system to “a graveyard” and saying that “the shine is off” public education.
With Yudof neglecting his duty to advocate for state support of higher education, the responsibility falls to UC students, faculty, and staff. With more than 191,000 current students, 1,340,000 living alumni, and 103,000 faculty and staff, UC represents a huge  voting block. Hopefully this political power can be leveraged into more support for the UC system. The future of public higher education in California depends on it.

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