by Michael Meranze
As we head into this week’s Regents meeting and the imminent increase of student fees, Andrew Dickson is right to draw attention to the political and funding implications of the recent PPI poll on higher education. The results, as he makes clear, are sobering. The public, at least as represented in the poll, thinks well of the Community Colleges, CSU, and UC, believes that higher education is important for the state, and is concerned about its future. But a strong majority is unwilling to pay higher taxes to help higher education overcome recent cuts and a sizeable minority thinks that if we simply used funds more effectively everything would be fine. Dickson emphasizes the difficulties inherent in these poll results. I want to point here in another direction. The poll indicates, I think, that while there is no real consensus on how to move ahead and that public opinion is contradictory, UCOP’s plans to rebuild UC on the basis of student fees is a self-defeating strategy. Not only will it prove economically insufficient but it will likely start a death spiral in state support. In the end, the University cannot survive that spiral—at least not as a public university of 10 strong campuses.
The long-term task we face is to stop UCOPs strategy of trying to shift university funding from the State to the students. That will not be an easy task. There seems to be no end in sight for the continuing and worsening budget news. While some cuts—especially to education—were limited by Federal stimulus money that money will run out by next year. The Governor and his allies are threatening even more substantial cuts not only to education but to those most in need of state funds. Mike Genest, Schwarzenegger’s outgoing finance director (and source of support for President Yudof’s mantra that the state is not a reliable partner) revealed that he looked into the possibility of California giving up statehood in order to become a federal territory.
Given the crises of the State budget, the PPI poll offers a series of sobering points. As Andrew Dickson reports, the Poll results show that 56% of the public is unwilling to raise taxes in support of higher education. This fact does have some ambiguity to it: 56% of Democrats are willing to raise taxes whereas 58% of independents and 74% of Republicans are not. Republican opposition I take to be hard opposition—after all low taxation is an article of faith for the California Republican Party. The question is whether the numbers could be changed for the Democrats and the Independents. In the short run the answer seems to be no. The recession has hit the state hard and people are reluctant to add to their own economic burdens. The significant lack of confidence in State leaders (the poll suggests that only 21% approve of Arnold’s handling of higher education and only 16% approve of the Legislature’s handling of the problem) probably increases the public’s reluctance to commit to further funding. Moreover, while a majority of the respondents believe that the University needs both additional funding and to use its funds more effectively, there is a sizeable minority (38%) who believe that the University could solve its problems simply by being more efficient. On the other hand, 70% of the respondent’s indicated that they thought that the budget cuts for higher education were a “big problem.”
This sort of contradiction, of course, is nothing new to California politics nor is it limited to higher education. Since at least the 1980s Californians have assumed that they could gain high quality public services without having to pay for them. Moreover, there has been widespread misinformation about the tax system (which is far more regressive than most admit) and about the alleged effectiveness and wisdom of California’s commitment to mass incarceration (which as even Andrew Dickson’s conclusion suggests is a too easily accepted political meme. The structure of State governing power after Proposition 13 was all but designed to make the State inefficient with the predictable result of loss of confidence. But the Great Recession has made these long-standing problems more severe and it does no good to ignore that.
But there are difficulties peculiar to our situation. The difficulties are easy to name: the Regents and UCOP are determined to switch our funding onto students and private sources and the Oakland-based Senate Leadership are unwilling to resist that process (indeed all indications are that they are active supporters). The Regents have refused suggestions that the fee increases have a sunset clause or that an audit be completed before imposing higher fees. The Gould Commission is pushing ahead with its plans to remake the University in a matter of months (and it doesn’t seem coincidental that Russell Gould and Christopher Edley were opposed to slowing down the process—after all that might allow more alternatives to appear).
On the other hand, the protests and objections from students, staff, and faculty and the challenges from local Senate committees do seem to be having an impact. New questions arise continually about the use of student fees and about the colleges’ possible subsidization of the professional schools. UCOP has been forced to respond more and more to the dissatisfaction of the campuses. And President Yudof’s indication, on the eve of the Regents meeting to discuss fee increases that he would seek $913M in additional funding from the State suggests that he too is feeling the public pressure against explicitly giving up on the State.
It is in this context that the contradictions of the PPI poll take on their greatest importance. It is true that 56% of the respondents were unwilling to pay more in taxes but 62% were “very concerned” and 27% were “somewhat concerned” about raising fees for students. At the same time 57% were “very concerned” and 29% were “somewhat concerned” about admitting fewer students due to the budget crisis with almost identical numbers for reducing classes. When asked if they were willing to raise student fees to make up for budget cuts 68% said no (although to be complete I should note that 67% were willing to have a sliding scale for fees). Even more striking, at least to me, is that when asked what was the most important problem facing higher education, 31% thought student costs and affordability and 26% thought the lack of state funding while only 2% pointed to the politics of professors and only another 2% pointed to teaching or instruction. Despite all the summer fears about the hostility to the University and the professorate, the public doesn’t seem all that worried.
These results suggest to me that the University will pursue UCOP’s present strategy at great risk to itself and to higher education. The public is not in favor of fee increases to compensate for budget cuts (which appears to be President Yudof’s plans). If fees continue to be raised it seems likely that the public will become more alienated from the higher education, they will turn their backs on the institutions, and we will begin a race to the bottom for state funding. Nor can the University continue to raise fees indefinitely if it hopes to retain students. Already there are signs that private colleges are gaining enrollments due to the rising costs and decreasing offerings at CSU and UC. Without romanticizing what UC has been in the past we can be assured that if the Regents and UCOP continue their present strategy UC will cease to be the world-renowned system that it is now. CSU is equally stressed: their applications are increasing dramatically as they are forced to cut back on admissions. CSU leaders have been more outspoken in opposition to these changes than have the UC Regents. But they cannot reverse this process alone.
We may not be able to stop the fee increases in the short term. But there are possibilities to reconnect with the public’s desire for an open and excellent public university system funded by the state. Kristin Peterson and Mary Furner have suggested a variety of strategies to engage the public. These will, admittedly, take time. Our internal challenges—most especially in stopping the Gould Commission’s rush to judgment—will remain. But despite the cautions that Andrew Dickson has raised there is a reservoir of commitment to public higher education in the state. Californians remain committed to their system of higher education, continue to think that college education matters, and continue to think that the state’s future is tied up with its universities and community colleges.
We are facing a new version of the battle of the books. But whereas earlier battles concerned the ancients and the moderns ours is somewhat different. The Governor, the Regents, UCOP and UCOF seem to think that the only books that matter are accountants’ books. The public knows better. But we need to offer clearer accounts of how higher education matters and propel UCOP into doing the same—and these accounts need to come from all parts of the University. If we are unable to do this then we, UC, CSI, the Community Colleges and the State will be the losers. And in that case, I doubt that even the winners will savor their victory.
6 hours ago