An Open Letter to California

January 10, 2011 at 11:56am

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This is a sad day for California. In the budget proposed by Gov. Brown, the collective tuition payments made by University of California students for the first time in history would exceed what the state contributes to the system's general fund. The crossing of this threshold transcends mere symbolism and should be profoundly disturbing to all Californians.

 

 

Early and enduring support for the University of California has been critical to the state's success, seeding the world's eighth largest economy, shaping its society and serving its citizenry in myriad other ways. California emerged as the Great Exception, to borrow Carey McWilliams' phrase, in large part because of this investment, made across generations by all California taxpayers in the service of a common good.

 

 

Undeniably, the governor's hand has been forced. He has produced, as he calls it, a tough budget for tough times, and the university will stand up and do all it can to help the state through what is a fiscal, structural and political crisis. There can be no business as usual.

 

 

To that end, I will be giving each of the system's 10 chancellors specific budget reduction targets and asking them to develop and report back to me within six weeks their plans for meeting them. We will do the same at the system's central office. I then will go to our governing Board of Regents with a detailed scenario of what steps would be required to absorb a $500 million reduction — a reduction that will take the state's annual per student contribution to $7,210, compared to the $7,930 to be paid by students and their families.

 

 

Precision is difficult with a reduction of this magnitude, but every effort will be made to protect the quality that has made the University of California — and the state it serves — the envy of the world. My intent is to preserve the core academic and research mission as much as possible. My preference at this point, and my sense of where the Board of Regents stands on this issue, is to not seek an additional fee increase; that said, I cannot fully commit to this course until the board and I have assessed the impact of permanent reductions on campuses. I also will attempt to maintain, if feasible, the programs of financial aid that are so crucial to our public mission of serving all qualified California students, regardless of family income level.

 

 

But let me be blunt: This won't be easy, and all possible remedies must be considered. The cuts the governor proposes will require sacrifice, pain and courage. Already we are working hard to streamline administrative functions, looking to create $500 million in savings within the next few years. While we are striving to realize the savings as quickly as possible, it still won't be enough. With the governor's budget, as proposed, we will be digging deep into bone. The physics of the situation cannot be denied — as the core budget shrinks, so must the university.

 

 

All of this comes at a time when more California students than ever are applying to attend a University of California campus. My hope is that going forward, Californians will begin to ponder the implications of declining state support for their university. The proposed budget will reduce taxpayer investment by an additional 16.4 percent; in just 20 years state support, as measured on a per-student basis and adjusted for inflation, will have declined by 57 percent. Rising tuition and fees have made up only half of this shortfall. The cost of producing a credit hour actually has decreased; it's the students' co-pay, if you will, that has risen.

 

 

The governor in his inaugural address invoked the irrepressible California spirit. He quoted from the crossing journals of his great-grandfather, who endured many hardships as he trekked to California in 1852. It is interesting to note that, even as the governor's ancestor embarked on this journey, newly arrived Californians already were making the case for an educated populace that would ensure prosperity long after the gold mines were played out.

 

 

"We hope for a better time; for a time when our people will call California by those good old words ‘Our Commonwealth'," proclaimed The Pacific newspaper, in an Oct. 10, 1851 editorial. "... When we have reached this condition, teachers will be welcomed, schoolhouses, academies and colleges will be built and filled, and the means of a varied and large education provided."

 

 

It continued: "Whatever difficulty and discouragement may now surround the effort to make California as rich in mind as she is in gold, they are to diminish. The institutions profitable for wisdom, as well as all other institutions which mark the progress, character, honor and virtue of a State, are to be here. It is only a question of time...."

 

Now, 160 years later, California must take up the question of whether it wishes to turn back from the wisdom and foresight of these earliest Californians. With the advantage of hindsight, it should be abundantly clear: The stakes are as high today as they were back then.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Mark