Reclaiming the Master Plan for Higher Education in California

The following is a presentation given by Professor Joseph A. Palermo as part of a panel discussion at the Reclaim the Master Plan Conference in Sacramento, California, September 26, 2015:

In equal importance to the text of the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 are the idealistic assumptions its architects held that didn't need to be written down.

They had a commonsense understanding that by building a first-rate public college and university system, and investing in California's young people, the State would prosper.

Yet despite the Master Plan's stunning achievements over the years, not long ago, when the state was confronted with the fiscal consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 2008, things looked so dire for the California State University system that a USC Education Professor, William Tierney, in an op-ed that appeared in the Sacramento Bee called for the CSU to be privatized and sold off to the University of Phoenix.

Professor Tierney's extremist privatization scheme is a perfect illustration of the eroding commitment to our public colleges and universities, even among those we would think should know better.

(If it weren't for the excellent community college, UC, and CSU located near my hometown I would not be a professor today. I attended West Valley Community College, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and San Jose State University. I went on to earn a M.A. and doctorate from Cornell. I was the first in my family to attend college. The only way I got into an Ivy League Ph.D. program was the opportunity afforded me by the Master Plan. I have also taught at all three tiers of the system.)

The New Deal generation of California leaders, including Governor Edmund Pat Brown, appreciated the fact that the government's investment in public higher education was a path to a healthier, thriving state.

Fast-forward to today and we see the CSU hobbled by years of draconian budget cuts, an over-worked and underpaid faculty, and an ever growing share of the teaching load taken up by even lower-paid part-timers.

Student fees (and since 2010 student "tuition") have skyrocketed along with the six-figure salaries of a fatty layer of new administrative positions and managers.

Sometimes the corporate-friendly CSU Trustees and Chancellor's Office have behaved less like stewards entrusted with a precious public resource, and more like 19th Century robber barons, beating up the faculty union, demanding "take-backs" that crimp shared governance, and placing new burdens on students and their families.

Mario Savio's famous analogy of the University as a factory where the administrators are the bosses, the faculty the workers, and the students the raw material has nearly been realized at the CSU.

We need to re-invigorate the wider promise of these public institutions that took decades to build and have given a leg up to countless thousands of Californians who, like myself, had doors opened for them they never even knew existed.

I do not believe it was the intention of the authors of the Master Plan to create a vehicle for administrators and managers to enrich themselves.

I believe the intention was to provide the highest quality education to California's young people at the lowest cost.

Trustees and Chancellors in recent decades have drifted far afield from this original intent.

The anti-tax zealotry these days exhibited by the California Republican Party and its allies among the so-called moderate or business-friendly Democrats is nothing more than cynicism masquerading as public policy.

It offers no blueprint for the future.

There's no reason why we cannot pay for the public investments necessary to fully fund, even at this late date, the vision of the Master Plan at levels the previous generation understood were vital.

I can't help but notice that as the state of California became more racially and ethnically diverse, and the student body make up changed -- with more African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and students from first-generation immigrant families attending the CSU -- suddenly the funding got more scarce, the budgets got slashed, and half the teaching duties were turned over to temp workers.

The disconnect we've often seen between the CSU's corporate-friendly Trustees and Chancellor's Office, such as we witnessed during the Charles Reed years -- where at the same meeting where they voted for a 12 percent hike in student fees they also voted to approve a $100,000-a-year pay raise for the incoming president of San Diego State - marks a perfect illustration.

In fact, the move was so tone-deaf that Governor Jerry Brown publicly criticized it and the promise was made that in the future incoming presidents' salaries would be raised by no more than 10 percent.

But the episode is indicative of what we've seen at the CSU in recent years: austerity for faculty in the form of stagnant salaries and part-timers taking over a larger share of the teaching load, increases in fees and tuition for students, while at the same time more and more six-figure administrative positions added to the rolls.

It's unfair and absurd to lavish CEO-level salaries on an ever growing pool of managers while at the same time keeping faculty salaries flat, gouging students and their families, and privatizing vital campus functions including bookstores that rip off students.

With the culture of austerity and scarcity that has gripped the CSU following years of harsh budget cuts administrators have attempted to squeeze more "efficiencies" out of the system by deploying neo-liberal "metrics."

Faculty are inundated with new buzzwords like "assessment," "accountability," and "performance indicators."

The top-down manner in which over-reaching administrators and like-minded climbers among the faculty have imposed flavor-of-the-month education "reform" metrics at the CSU -- using standardized formulas developed by those far removed from the activity being measured -- only takes time away from teaching and advising and serving the needs of students.

Last summer, the president and vice president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC testified before Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin's (D-Thousand Oaks) committee on veteran affairs where they admitted that their "metrics" completely failed to pick up on Heald and Corinthian colleges' egregious predatory lending, ethics violations, and fraud aimed against students (many of whom were combat veterans).

Prior to their implosion, administrators and politicians often pointed to these for-profit diploma mills as a model the CSU should follow.

Indeed, WASC continued to give its seal of approval to Heald and Corinthian right up to the moment those schools were exposed (not by WASC) as being out of compliance with even minimal federal standards, but by the US Department of Education.

The good standing and accreditation of these predatory for-profit colleges illustrate the limits of using these kinds of "metrics" to evaluate the quality of educational institutions.

Measurements are fine and can be helpful, but we should note that the time and energy faculty and staff spend compiling data and filling out forms might be better spent teaching, advising, mentoring, and helping students attain their desired professions.

The new emphasis on "metrics" cannot paper over bigger tensions, such as the desire for both faster graduation rates and greater accessibility.

Allowing for greater accessibility means many students entering the CSU will be in need of some form of remedial help and guidance. Demanding that students graduate faster might therefore be at odds with the goal of greater accessibility.

We need to be cognizant of these kinds of tensions.

For years, the California Faculty Association (CFA) has fought alongside students and alumni for more funding for the CSU and has pointed to pragmatic ways to secure it (such as a severance tax on oil with the proceeds earmarked for higher education).

The "top-two" primary enables anti-tax crusaders the opportunity to call themselves "Democrats."

The "split-roll" proposals we've heard about for years on Proposition 13 could be used to help the CSU.

Based on size, large commercial properties should be reappraised and the new property taxes used to shore up the Master Plan.

We must make permanent Proposition 30, which has done so much to stabilize the state's finances, even after the California Republican Party predicted (as always) it would be a "job killer."

In the post-Citizens United era we should take a serious look at creating a system of publicly financed political campaigns in this state.

We should also reconsider the wisdom of term limits, (which only strengthens the hand of corporate lobbyists).

The antiquated two-thirds supermajority rule in the Legislature that anti-tax zealots have so mercilessly exploited should be scrapped in favor of simple majority rule like forty-seven other states.

We must re-invigorate the public debate by showing Californians that the Community Colleges, the CSUs, and UCs are not only drivers of our state's economy but contribute in unquantifiable ways to the vibrancy of our society.

The gathering together of thousands of young people in close proximity with a shared purpose on a CSU campus creates a pulsating mix, spurs local economies, and bolsters small businesses.

Even based on the bean counters' own parsimonious "metrics" - the CSU is a good investment.

The anti-tax nihilists must be sidelined and the state's countless wealthy residents should be willing to kick in their fair share to renew California's commitment to public higher education.

Rich people across the state want to do their part.

They too are concerned about the future; they too care about green house gasses, the health of our coastline, and a clean environment.

Yet we have entrenched backward-looking business interests -- many of them tied to Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Agribusiness, Big Finance, and out-of-state corporations -- that behave more like they live in Alabama or Mississippi than in the Golden State.

The 1960 Master Plan represents the true spirit of California, one that values the public sector and is willing to look to the long term with vision and optimism.

Most importantly, the founders of this great public institution had a deep understanding that only by investing in our young people are we going to be able to build a more prosperous future.

With all the potential problems facing this state - global warming, drought, wild fires, flash floods, earthquakes, over-fishing, endangered species, income inequality, racial conflict - we must have educated and engaged citizens with their eyes wide open.

The Master Plan represents a promise that existed long before the rise of anti-tax fatalism.

We must renew that promise.

We must take on the naysayers directly, wrest the machinery of government from their dead cold hands, and make the necessary investments in our public colleges and universities.

Only then will we be standing up for the original intent of California's path-breaking Master Plan for Higher Education.