Sweeping Change Starts Now: Let’s Rush Sacramento


Akos Rona-Tas
Associate Professor of Sociology

Gershon Shafir
Professor of Sociology

The University of California is in its deepest crisis in half a century and every member of the UC community feels the blow.You, the students, are especially affected, as you will see your tuition rise, your classes grow, wait lists expand, courses disappear, the quality of your education suffer and the prestige of your UC diploma slip.

But everyone is affected, from staff and faculty to the administration. We are in this together.

What went wrong? Is it that the UC system failed and now needs shock therapy to mend its ways? Hardly. The UC system is not perfect, but it has been a spectacular success — an engine of economic growth and social equality. The UC system is considered among the best universities in the world and just this year, two of its current faculty and three of its alumni received Nobel Prizes.

Is it that the UC system is like a carriage-maker whose product is excellent, but in low demand because barely anyone travels by horse and buggy? President Yudof suggested as much in a recent interview, arguing that as our country grows older there is less demand for higher education. This may be true elsewhere, but not in California. Our state is not expecting a significant drop in college-age students anytime soon.

Moreover, in California only one in four young people go to four-year colleges and universities compared to one in two Indiana or Massachusetts. In fact, only two states do more poorly than us.

So why is the legislature taking away money from something that works and is in high demand? Where has our money gone? One part of it has gone to healthcare where costs are running amok. If you want to save the UC system, fight for healthcare reform. Another part of our money has gone to the prison system. In 1977 there were 20,000 prisoners in California. Today, thanks to the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws, that number has skyrocketed to 173,000. Even though prison conditions are appalling, the state spends five times more on an inmate than it does on your education, and the average prison guard in California makes twice as much as a guard in Texas.

What can be done? There are three options.

The first is privatization. That would shift most of the cost of higher education to you, the students. In a fully privatized model, tuition would have to rise to $27,000 to return UC funding to normal levels. We can reduce this enormous increase by drawing on other private revenue sources, but each has its price and they would not bring in enough money to spare you from a still-large fee increase.

The second option is a 30-percent cut in enrollment. The cut would make up for how much less money the UC system is currently getting from Sacramento.

This would be a disaster. California’s already abysmal college-going rate would fall even further, depriving 15,000 students each year of a UC education. Either solution will have a devastating effect on access and diversity. If we do nothing, some combination of these two options is going to happen.

The third solution is to fight for maintaining the UC system as a public institution (how it was envisioned by the California Master Plan, which is still the law of our state). This fight cannot be fought for the UC system only, otherwise any extra dollar for the UC system will have to be taken from elsewhere. Taking from other vulnerable institutions would pit us against the California State University system, K-12 education, healthcare for poor children and other constituencies, each with its own legitimate set of needs. We would be divided and conquered.

The only hope of success is to fight for sweeping political change. Think big, act politically. There has to be a healthcare reform and a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. Most importantly, we need a democratic way of deciding how to charge taxes and draw a budget. Currently, only a two-third majority can decide how much money the state can collect and spend. That leaves the power in the hands of a small minority.

Public higher education did not fail. Sacramento did. We need a better governor, a better legislature and a better state constitution. A new governor and legislature will be decided next year, so get organized and vote. In the meantime, write to them and let them know that you want to protect public universities and that you support reasonable ways of increasing state revenue.

For instance, as California is the only major oil-producing state that does not tax oil drilling, a modest tax on drilling would bring in $1 billion to $2 billion to fill some gaps. To find out more about the issues and to connect with other bright, like-minded and resourceful people, here on campus and elsewhere check out savingucsd.ning.com. You can contact your already active fellow students at the UCSD Coalition to Save our Futures at [email protected].

You, students, have much more political power than you think. There are 220,000 of you just in the UC system and over 2 million in public higher education in California. Once you add your families into the equation, we are part of a group that is so large and formidable that Sacramento has no choice but to take notice.

Readers can contact Akos Rona-Tas at [email protected] and Gershon Shafir at [email protected].

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