Behind the Master Plan

In 1960, a rivalry between California’s two top university systems — the University of California and the precursors to the California State University system — gave birth to the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, a document laying the foundation and infrastructure for the state’s college-bound students. Earlier this summer, the two sides agreed to change one of the plans central tenets, the UC system’s exclusive control of doctorate degrees. As part of the summer deal, the elite university system said it would allow for CSU campuses to award the education doctorate.

But that agreement places the rest of the Master Plan in a conundrum: If the university admits that the doctorate provisions of the document have become outdated, then perhaps the entire document isn’t as holy as UC leaders continue to maintain, and perhaps other portions need to be revisited as well.

“Insofar as the doctorate again becomes an issue of contention, it could spark [talks about the rest of the plan],” said Ethan Rarick, whose recent biography of former Gov. Pat Brown suggests that the universities’ competition over the degree — the “Golden Fleece” of higher education — largely ignited the dialogue that led to the Master Plan.

According to Jennifer Lilla, who served as president of the UC Student Association last year, the document has already stopped being a doctrine that is set in stone.

“The Master Plan, just as any document, is a malleable document,” she said. “People use it the way they want to use it, to suit their political situation. And it’s really frustrating, because people laud it as the paragon of higher education.”

Yet UC Director of Educational Relations Todd Greenspan argues that any changes that needed to be made already have been, through iterative reviews spearheaded by the state Legislature — even though these appear to be the very kind of political meddling that the Master Plan’s authors hoped to avoid.

“I’m kind of surprised when I see statements in the newspapers that this is a 45-year-old document and that it hasn’t been reviewed,” he said. “That’s just not true. It’s a living document and it has evolved. … Basically, its core parts have been reaffirmed by the Legislature.”

But the view that the document may not be that sacred has found supporters in the highest of echelons of state government. In his compact with the CSU and UC systems, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised university funding estimates that are largely divorced from the levels projected in the higher education blueprint, with even the Legislative Analyst’s Office calling the governor’s formula arbitrary. The compact also requires UC campuses to play a bigger part in training the state’s math and science teachers, a role the crafters of the Master Plan saw as the exclusive responsibility of the CSU system.

In his 2005 budget, Schwarzenegger also proposed diverting thousands of UC-qualified students into community colleges — a plan later abandoned after drawing substantial criticism — marking the first time in more than four decades that students eligible under the guidelines of the Master Plan would not have had a place on a UC campus.

On the other hand, state lawmakers as high up as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state Superintendent of Education Jack O’Connell have all suggested that, perhaps, the UC campuses should be enrolling more students than the caps set in the Master Plan.

During debates over the tightening of eligibility last fall, all three opposed a proposal — later adopted by the regents — to reduce the number of students eligible to apply to the university to the Master Plan levels.

Schwarzenegger’s latest appointee to the UC Board of Regents, businessman Frederick Ruiz, also suggested that the caps were not as hallowed as the rest of the board believed, voting against the changes.

“Today, we kind of see the Master Plan breaking down,” Rarick said, explaining that the state has stopped providing the kind of funds that would make the vision of the original document a reality. “I think actually the state is already unintentionally revisiting a lot of the issues of the Master Plan, because if we don’t begin to invest more heavily in higher education, we won’t have space for every student. … Whether we intend to or not, we’re already revisiting the Master Plan.”

Rarick likes to point to a historical comparison: During Brown’s tenure as governor, the state built three new UC campuses; in the subsequent thirty years, the state opened none.

Whether the new debate over the Golden Fleece forces California to rethink its long-term higher education vision, he argues that those numbers alone show that the Master Plan has largely lost its ability to keep higher education a state priority.

Greenspan and other UC heads, including UC President Robert C. Dynes, on the other hand, disagree.