A new challenge for an old truce

    The way University of California officials like to tell it, the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education is as much a quintessence of California as the grizzly bear, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Beach Boys.

    Providing a long-term arrangement for a three-tiered higher education system, they credit the 1960 document with developing a vision that has resulted in economic prosperity and international renown. Like a fine Napa chardonnay, the plan brought the sophisticated tastes of quality higher education traditionally reserved for the rich and elite to every high school graduate in California. Its model was eventually exported to other states, which wanted a refined bottle of their own.

    “The Master Plan is lauded as the most brilliant structure for higher education,” Regent George Marcus told the rest of the UC Board of Regents in a meeting last year. His view enjoys a wide following on the board and within the university.

    Popular tradition credits the plan’s origins to a committee of wise, scholarly men — and they were almost all men — led by then-Gov. Pat Brown. They said in their final report, let there be college education for all; and there was college education for all.

    “They were pretty visionary in 1960 and what they saw was a need for both mass education, and, at the same time, they were interested in creating a really high quality education,” UC Director of Educational Relations Todd Greenspan said.

    However, its romanticized history and the Master Plan’s near-sacrosanct status largely conceal a much more pragmatic and nuanced story about how the document came into being. And that real story suggests that the plan, in its current conception, may not be around for too much longer.

    Battle for the Golden Fleece

    he popular intelligent-design theory behind the Master Plan’s drafting differs greatly from the reality — a self-interested struggle between the UC system and the state colleges, the forerunner to the California State University system.

    “Everyone looks back at the Master Plan as being noble, and it was. But it also involved a lot of real-world nitty-gritty politics,” said Ethan Rarick, author of “California Rising,” a new biography of Brown that examines the governor’s role in the plan’s creation.

    At the heart of the conflict was universities’ “Golden Fleece” — the ability to award doctorate degrees. The state colleges wanted it and UC campuses didn’t want to give its doctoral monopoly up, fearing that a stronger competitor with elite degrees would reduce the UC portion of the higher education pie in the state budget.

    “It was really the competition between those two systems — that was really what caused the Master Plan to go forward,” said Rarick, who also currently serves as the acting director of the Center on Politics at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “The focal point of that competition was the doctorate.”

    Though UC administrators now embrace the document with open arms, Rarick’s book suggests that the university’s initial acquiescence came much as a result of a threat from state lawmakers delivered by Brown. Despite being credited as the father of the plan, the threat was largely the full extent to the governor’s direct role in crafting the compromise.

    “The academics must come to an agreement, or the politicians would do it for them,” Rarick said, describing the thrust of Brown’s message.

    Archived UC memos suggest that the university’s interest in the project was not all that altruistic. When the state Legislature’s top policy analyst A. Alan Post was suggested to lead the committee that would write the omnibus higher education blueprint, the university balked, fearing that he might stray where he was not welcome.

    “I mention to you also the danger that such a role might provide the opportunity for Alan to dig into delicate matters of teaching load, expense accounts and other matters which the university tended to obscure,” university administrator Dean McHenry stated in a letter to then-UC President Clark Kerr, a document cited in Rarick’s book.

    At the end, CSU campuses won the ability to issue only joint doctorate degrees with the UC system, Kerr preserved the elite nature of his university, the state got a vision for the future and posterity saw the birth of an urban legend.

    “Today, the Master Plan is seen as evidence of California’s commitment to higher education, and that’s true, but it was originally a peace treaty in a political fight,” Rarick said in an interview. “And the university’s chief motivation was to maintain its pre-eminence above the colleges and to make sure the colleges did not evolve into a research institution.”

    Story of changing times

    err’s own words show how much the state has changed since the birth of the Master Plan. Speaking before faculty in 1957, Kerr famously explained that his job as chancellor — at the time, he was still the head of the Berkeley campus — had become defined as “providing parking for faculty, sex for the students and athletics for the alumni.”

    These days, parking has become a perennial issue in student-government elections on UC campuses. The faculty-led Academic Senate, on the other hand, has largely found new life in passing resolutions that weigh in on everything from the Patriot Act to the College Board’s National Merit Scholarship Program. And only three of the 10 UC campuses even have a football team.

    Despite the Master Plan’s support for the “principle that state [CSU] colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state,” fees at both systems have skyrocketed in recent years.

    There are also signs that the plan’s caps on enrollment — limiting UC campuses to the top eighth of high school graduates and CSU campuses to the top third — may be disconnected from the needs of a technologically driven economy that did not exist four decades ago.

    Speaking before a House of Representatives subcommittee this June, one of President George W. Bush’s top advisers on science and technology policy complained that the nation’s demand for engineers continues to greatly outpace its number of engineering graduates. In 1998, UC campuses graduated nearly one out of every 30 engineers in the nation, suggesting that increasing engineering ranks would likely entail building new UC campuses and, perhaps, adjusting the enrollment goals of the Master Plan.

    “The question that is really on everyone’s mind is: Is it still relevant?” said Jennifer Lilla, former president of the UC Student Association, a lobby group that represents UC students. “In the Master Plan, there was always this presumption that, of course, K-12 [education] is always going to be strong and, of course, we’re going to have a public education system. And I think you can make the argument that neither of those is true any longer.”

    At the time they signed on to the plan, UC administrators feared that the university would lose state money if CSU campuses became more powerful. Since the 1970s, the UC system’s share of the state general fund has fallen from 7 percent to 3.5 percent. But the most of the money went to pay for new prisons, not to the state colleges.

    Yet Greenspan, the head of the university’s educational relations, believes that the document has stood the test of time.

    “I think it was the era of rational planning — Sputnik and all of that stuff,” he said, explaining that the plan’s authors crafted a vision that accurately foresaw the changes that the subsequent decades entailed. “Even though society and everything has changed, I think it’s still an efficient method. No other state has so many highly ranked higher education institutions in the public sector.”

    A fraying coalition

    n 2001, the very issue that brought the two university systems together in 1960 also threatened to split them apart. At the time, CSU administrators threw their weight behind a bill to give their campuses the power to award a doctorates in education, a move vehemently opposed by UC heads. At the end, the two sides made a deal in the Master Plan, but the compromise didn’t last.

    This summer, the CSU drive for the Golden Fleece re-emerged again, this time in a bill seeking to give the state colleges power to offer doctorates in certain professional fields.

    The problem, according to Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s International and Area Studies program Thomas J. La Belle, is the phenomenon of “credential inflation.” Former vice president of San Francisco State University, La Belle has published an analysis, outlining his case for why CSU campuses should award doctorates.

    Over the years, requirements of various professional practices — like physical therapy and audiology — have crept up, with the doctorate becoming, in some cases, the minimum for a license to practice. But UC campuses have shown little interest in expanding doctorate programs into such applied fields, La Belle concluded in his report.

    In drafting the Master Plan, the authors did not take into account the changing demands of the marketplace and the gradual increase in the necessity of higher degrees.

    “I don’t think any of them predicted well, and I’m not sure that they could have,” La Belle said. “Nothing works exactly like you think it should. I don’t know that it’s possible to do it, but I think you need to build a system that is flexible enough to anticipate changes.”

    Though UC and CSU leaders reached yet another deal this summer, giving CSU campuses power to offer only the education doctorate, La Belle said he doubts that state colleges’ appetite will stay satisfied for long and that they will likely come back to ask for more doctorate programs, as professional standards continue to climb.

    “My own feeling is that, yeah, it probably will happen,” he said. “Sooner or later, it will happen.”

    Greenspan, too, said the university doubts that the current compromise will pacify CSU campuses for long. Instead, UC administrators have established a task force to try to predict future changes in demand for advanced degrees, and adjust the university’s own curriculum accordingly.

    “What we’ve decided is that the UC should be looking forward,” he said.

    Check next week’s Focus section for the Master Plan’s next step.

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