FIRST DRAFT: The Trashing of the Public University

By Ruth Rosen
Tuesday March 20, 2012 - 12:51:00 PM

Editor's Note: Twenty years ago, journalist and historians Ruth Rosen, then a professor at U.C Davis and a columnist on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, anticipated the public and state's unwillingness to stop the decline of the University of California. We reprint this to remind our readers that the gradual free fall of education in California has a long history.

Californians can no longer assume that their children can aspire to attend one of our public universities. In the next few weeks, legislators and administrators, faced with the state's whopping budget crisis, plan to raise student fees, chop departments, slice budgets and fire hundreds of faculty. Before long, access to California’s public universities will be sharply limited and higher education will become a privilege for the few. 

In the last decade we have watched the dismantling of the public sector. Public schools, police departments, health clinics and libraries—to name just a few public services we once took for granted—have been starved. Meanwhile, the wealthy move their children into private schools, hire private guards, pay for private physicians and buy their own books. Now add to this the dismembering of California's public universities. 

Like many Americans, I grew up regarding public education as the route for escaping poverty and finding meaningful work. My parents left behind the world of tenement houses and rats through state supported universities. New York state paid most of my tuition at a private university. That's how much states once invested in the futures of their young. 

But it was California that became synonymous with public education after World War II. Here was the world's greatest university system, the means by which the poor and Immigrants could climb into the middle class. California paid for my graduate education, and I was proud to repay the debt by teaching in this premier system. 

Now I watch as legislators and administrators secretly make up their hit lists, while we—the faculty, staff, students and the public—are neither consulted nor privy to the process. Last year's fee hikes are already limiting access for low-income students. Further fee hikes will close the door on many bright young people. One hundred tenured faculty will be laid off at the San Diego campus of the California State University. Entire departments—including anthropology. aerospace engineering and religious studies—have been placed on the endangered list. 

Hundreds more faculty will shortly be laid off throughout the Cal State system. Faculty tenure has been broken without the benefit of public debate, setting a precedent that could destroy the reputations of the CSU and UC systems. Irresistible "golden handshakes" are prematurely retiring an entire generation of distinguished senior faculty. These professors won't be replaced. Salary cuts and the loss of merit increases will make it difficult to retain young faculty who can't afford California housing. Meanwhile. other universities raid California campuses and pick off distinguished faculty. 

This is not, of course, how legislators or administrators view the problem. For them, it is as though universities were selling just a bunch of goods and services. But a university is engaged in a complicated array of activities: the education of the young, research that benefits business ·and the public and the promotion of intellectual life. A university cannot be treated like a business. The education of young minds or the research that cures diseases cannot be measured in terms of profit or loss. 

Deep budget cuts in public universities are a shortsighted pseudo-solution to the state's economic woes. The United States is globally competitive in education. It is to our universities that students from around the world seek admission. We can't compete with the cheap labor or other nations, but we can provide the stellar education that will keep us more than competitive with Japan and the European Community. 

California’s public university system is also vital to the economic future of the state. The universities educate most of the state's physicians, dentists, veterinarians, educators, lawyers and agricultural scientists. They also encourage a critical mass of young people to question received wisdom and to carve out new visions for the future. 

No one disputes that California’s universities can sustain cuts. But students, faculty and staff, who are making major sacrifices, are outraged at a bloated administration that targets cuts for everyone but itself. That is why the exorbitant retirement packages for UC President David Gardner and other administrators produced an outpouring of rage. Both the Berkeley and Davis academic senates recently passed resolutions that would cap the salaries of administrators. Let the first layoffs and deepest cuts hit the administration. Students should not have to work three jobs to support the inflated salaries of those who administer—with questionable competence—California's public universities. 

The way to fix California's economic crisis is not by crippling the state's higher education system. Nor should we be forced to choose among the community colleges, CSU and UC. The state must raise revenues through fair taxation, particularly of property. Meanwhile. those who care about public education must demand deep cuts In the absurdly swollen U.S. military budget. Only a peace dividend, ultimately, will rescue America's public sector. 

No one voted to decimate California's public universities. Yet without public debate, the burden of higher education is shifting from the state to the beleaguered family. 

In the midst of a serious budgetary crisis, I make no special plea for faculty. but rather for the future quality of public higher education. This is no more a luxury than a good fire department. Without a distinguished faculty, a university Is nothing. Without an accessible education, young people’s dreams are doomed and public life is impoverished. Without an educated public, democracy is but a nine-letter word. 

Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis [at the time this was first written] writes regularly on political culture.