Undoing Reagan - Restoring the California Dream
by Charles Lemos, Thu Nov 19, 2009 at 11:27:09 PM EST
Ronald Reagan launched his political career in 1966 in his run for the governorship in California by targeting UC Berkeley's student peace activists, its professors, and, to a great extent, the University of California itself. His oft-repeated mantra was "to clean up the mess at Berkeley." In the end, he destroyed what was one of the great equalizers in California's meritocracy. Under Reagan began our shift from education as a right to education as a privilege for the wealthy or as an investment for the rest of us.
Reagan, who attended a bible college without distinguishing himself, viewed the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley with deep suspicion. In his campaign he vowed to "investigate charges of communism and blatant sexual misbehavior on the Berkeley campus." He proposed deep across budget cuts for the system and cavalierly suggested that Berkeley sell its collections of rare books in the Bancroft Library and hold bake sales in Sproul Plaza. He repeated Milton Friedman's views whenever and wherever he could: "Individuals should bear the costs of investments in themselves and receive the rewards."
"The state should not subsidized intellectual curiosity" declared Reagan when he finally ended a century-long state policy of free tuition in what has long been the nation's crown jewel of public universities. Founded in 1868 as a city of learning, the University of California was free for all. Today tuition runs $9,748 for in-state residents. Total cost runs over $28,000. And it is about to go up significantly effectively ending the American dream for tens of thousands who will be priced out of the nation's largest higher education system. For the 2010-2011 academic year, tuition will rise by 32 percent.
That the state of California is in crisis is by now a well-known fact. Our cupboard is threadbare and the state faces a $20.7 billion dollar deficit over the next 18 months. The implications are stark given the political impasse in the state legislature where a rump Republican minority has decided that it is to their political advantage to hold the state hostage. Nothing will get solved and lives will be ruined.
It's not just the ten flagship campuses of the University of California system that are hurting. It is the entire system. The state's 110 community colleges are designed to be affordable launchpads to further education, with the assurance that after a two-year foundation, students can land at one of the California State University or University of California campuses. Once they arrive at universities, data shows that transfers are successful, graduating at a slightly higher rate than students who enter as freshmen. But six in ten community college students are unable to graduate largely because cuts have so devastated the system that they can't get the classes they need to complete their associate's degree. California now ranks 39th among states in the percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to high school graduates.
And as California's educational prowess sinks so does the state overall. Restoring the California Dream does, in fact, mean undoing Reagan.
From the New York Times:
The state's higher education budget has been slashed by $2.8 billion this year, including $813 million from the university system -- about the equivalent of New Mexico's entire higher education budget.
"Dismantling this institution, which is a huge economic driver for the state, is a stupendously stupid thing to do, but that's the path the Legislature has embarked on," said Richard A. Mathies, dean of the College of Chemistry here at Berkeley, long the system's premier campus. "When you pull resources from an institution like this, faculty leave, the best grad students don't come, and the discoveries go down."
As the litany of cuts continues, there is a growing worry that senior faculty members may begin to defect. In fact, some colleges around the nation have begun identifying funds to use to recruit U.C. professors.
Since California adopted a master plan for higher education in 1960, the state has been, in the words of the historian Kevin Starr, "utopia for higher education." Eight of the 10 University of California campuses -- all but Merced and San Francisco -- are in the top 100 in this year's U.S. News & World Report's rankings. But maintaining that edge, without resources, is difficult.
In 2004, international rankings by the London-based Times Higher Education named Berkeley the No. 2 research university in the world, behind only Harvard. This year, Berkeley plummeted to No. 39, mostly because of its high faculty-to-student ratio. The other international rankings, by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, rated Berkeley No. 3 this month.
Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan group that promotes access to higher education, said that while public universities in many states were facing financial problems, California was in a class by itself.
"In most states, it's the economy, and you can say that in a couple of years, it will bounce back," Mr. Callan said. "But in California, it's really part of a significant retrenchment of the whole public sector. If the perception is that it's going to be chronic, and people give up on California, the pre-eminence of Berkeley and U.C.L.A. would be in danger."
No wonder, then, that people like Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy, are asking themselves whether it is time to move on.
As co-director of the Institute for Human Development, an interdisciplinary research group that suffered big cuts, Mr. Fuller worries that the unit is losing its intellectual excitement and its ability to support his grant proposals. Then, too, he lost his two best graduate students last year to Stanford.
"To stay on top, you need to be bringing in new people," Mr. Fuller said. "And I'm not sure how many of my most stimulating colleagues will still be here in three years."
So although he was not swayed last year when the University of North Carolina came calling, Mr. Fuller said, he may be more receptive this year.
Formerly taboo ideas, like allowing U.C.L.A. and Berkeley to charge substantially more than other campuses, or even eliminating the research mission at some of the newer campuses, are being put forward. Many here seem to be in a state of shock that things have been allowed to get so bad at one of the nation's leading public research universities, one with a long tradition of excellence. Berkeley faculty, past and present, have won 21 Nobel prizes. And last month, two of the 24 MacArthur fellowship grants went to a Berkeley computer scientist and a molecular biologist.
Students, professors and union workers alike say the state's 20 percent cutback in financing imperils the system's ability to provide a top-quality education to all qualified California students, particularly those from low-income families, who make up almost a third of the university's student body.
A nation is only as good as its public universities. The total cost of sending every single public university undergraduate to college for a year, a group makes up 75 percent of the total college enrollment, was $39.36 billion in 20062007 according to the Council of Higher Education. That's not an insignificant number, but that's less than half the cost of the AIG bailout, or the cost of five months in Iraq (in October 2009, our bill for Iraq came to $7.3 billion). Just put that into consideration when you consider the billions more we are about to pump into Afghanistan. We can send our kids to school or we can send them to die. Choose wisely.