Strategic Funding Request Puts Ball in Legislative Court

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA — As the nation’s premier public institution of higher learning, the 10-campus University of California system has long strived to preserve high-quality education by facilitating long-term commitments to its students and the people of California to maintain accessibility and affordability.

    At least, that’s what the UC Board of Regents claims. Faced with an unfathomable state deficit (just try to comprehend $28 billion — it’s difficult), the regents decided at their monthly meeting last week in San Francisco to omit student-fee increases from the 2009-10 budget despite signs from the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that the university should expect less state-provided money in next year’s coffer.

    Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, an ex-officio regent who led the push to strike $215 million in increases that the board later approved, said this year’s plan was the first in recent memory that the board sent the budget forward without a call for student-fee increases. Moreover, Garamendi — flanked by UC President Mark G. Yudof and several other high-profile regents — claimed the move would send a message to the Legislature that the university was serious about its mission to keep student fees as low as possible.

    Although some might be scratching their heads at the proposal, wondering how the university will stay on its feet if it doesn’t do something to combat the funding shortfall, the fact remains that the regents will increase student fees. There’s simply no way that the state will agree to fund the university both its entire $3.809 billion budget proposal and provide money to stave off fee increases, especially considering that state support has been on a downward trend for years — dropping nearly 40 percent per student since 1990 when adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth. Outspoken Regent Judith Hopkinson was bluntly realistic in her prediction for next year’s budget, saying at the meeting that there was not a “snowball’s chance” the university’s request would be honored.

    So why did the regents do it? Obviously, they just wanted to shift more pronounced blame for the inevitable increase to lawmakers, who after having no choice but to decline the university’s proposal would suddenly find fingers pointing at them from all directions — students, administrators, parents, higher-education interest groups — and leave the beleaguered regents, who will tactfully play the victim card, with no choice but to enact the estimated 9.4 percent fee increase anyway.
    Although their move was almost purely symbolic, the regents have succeeded in drawing attention to the drowning state higher-education system, offering a tough stance in the face of lawmakers who have let affordability slip under the radar in recent years (undergraduate tuition in 2002-03 was $3,859; now it’s $6,571).

    With sister institution the California State University in a similar predicament — last week the CSU trustees announced they’d be cutting enrollment by up to 10,000 next year — and UC administrators hinting at their own future enrollment curtailment, state higher-education officials must continue to press the Legislature for action despite budgetary roadblocks to keep college a reality, because shutting down access to state universities poses serious economic, scientific, technological and cultural consequences for California’s future. If lawmakers don’t listen, those effects may ultimately be unfixable.

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