Just Another Flashy Rescue Plan


Ronnie Steinitz/Guardian

STATE NEWS — On Jan. 29, state Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Merced) announced a bill to cap UC tuition hikes at 10 percent, annually. Although Denham claims his bill will alleviate our financial burden, it’s only a thinly veiled plan to expand the government’s power over UC operations.

The Student Protection Act SB 917 proposes restrictions on the 1960 Donahoe Higher Education Act SB 33 — which grants the regents the power to make any changes they feel will help the university.

The Donahoe act also granted state-college systems full independence from political influences. Restricting these existing provisions would force the UC Board of Trustees to wait 180 days before implementing a fee hike, and cap the hike at 10 percent — giving the state government more control over the UC system, always a dangerous inlet for outside political interests. However well intentioned, the bill lacks specifics for implementation, and does not offer any sustaining solutions to our budget problems.

Capping fee increases is a great idea, theoretically. States such as New Jersey and Arizona have capped annual tuition hikes at 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively, while Maryland has implemented a full tuition freeze on state colleges. But there’s one giant reason that California is different: Each of those state-college systems supports no more than 10 public universities; California supports 33. With responsibility for so many more students and drastically fewer state funds, the fee cap is a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t account for California’s more intricate maze of higher-education pathways and the varying ways in which they are financed.

Alongside steady decreases in state funding, tuition caps could severely damage the university’s ability to operate efficiently and offer a reputable education to all its students. Recent budget cuts have forced UC campuses to cut enrollment, administer layoffs, increase class sizes and slash student services. It doesn’t matter if the bill makes tuition more affordable for students — if there’s no funding from the state, and no funding from the students, our university will dwindle to nothing.

In response to such concerns, Denham proposed that the UC system become more “fiscally responsible” and sell off its “vacation villas” in Hawaii and Tahiti. Should these island-fantasy resorts actually exist, one would think a mass student protest would have already erupted outside UC President Mark Yudof’s office. However, upon further inquiry, it seems that the UC land in Hawaii and Tahiti is being used for research purposes (for example, UC Berkeley’s Gump station for terrestrial and marine life is located on the Tahiti patch. Not exactly a locale for beachside Mai Tai-sipping.)

Why Denham would mislead the public into believing that the UC system is secretly maintaining tropical island vacation villas isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps it’s easier to make it seem that Yudof and the regents have been hiding a big, expensive secret from all of us than it is to find a way to provide the UC with state funding.

Denham also suggested selling off the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States, a research center for foreign policy. Though it would be nice to see university higher-ups sacrifice their precious research institutes for undergraduate affordability once in a while, Denham has no inside experience with particular aspects of the UC research universe, and is obviously just name-dropping the one that seems most random to him as an instant fix-it.

The senator’s uninformed suggesting are further evidence that he’s less interested in protecting students than he is in pushing his frustration at the situation toward the regents, meanwhile giving a charitable sheen to his reputation.

It’s easy to forget that the university’s research sites provide all UC students a more valuable degree, along with the opportunity to intern. And on a larger, humanitarian level, research-lab discoveries are crucial in moving our nation and planet respectably and sustainably into the 21st century.

We are, as Yudof often reminds us, a well-established research institution. Denham’s half-baked proposal to sell off UC properties — nowhere has he even floated rough estimates as to how much revenue their sale would generate — is much more an emotional reaction to fee hikes than a helping hand to institutional success.

Denham and his fellow state legislators must understand that the rising cost of tuition is only half of public higher education’s problem. Degree options are being slashed, lecture halls overfilled, library hours shortened and student services eliminated. The real root of our downfall lies in the lack of adequate voter support and legislative priority — which Denham’s bill does nothing to correct.

The only effective “Student Protection Act” would be one guaranteeing continual state funding for higher education — the only way the UC and CSU systems will be able to sustain themselves without resorting to tuition hikes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact, has already proposed restoring $305 million to the university’s budget for next year. In addition, in his latest State of the State address, he proposed amending the California Constitution to ensure that public universities will receive no less than 10 percent of the total state general fund. And while both of those proposals may wind up being little more than pipe dreams, they’re far more productive than taking away the regents’ rights to sucks us dry.

Denham’s proposal doesn’t provide feasible solutions to ensure the quality of our education; it’s more a transparent ploy to make the government look like the good guy — and, if our failed state economy is much of an indicator, we’re not necessarily in better hands with the state of California advising our finances.

Readers can contact Anqi Chen at [email protected].

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