The Last Crisis at the University of California?

About to declare a financial emergency, the University of California is entering what could turn out to be its last crisis, the outcome of which may determine the fate not only of the greatest public university system in the nation, but of California as well.

For ultimately there are only two ways out of the present crisis, one of which will define the contours of California's future.

Either the price of a UC education will leap far beyond the reach of most Californians, which, combined with the cuts that are simultaneously devastating the California State University system (barring tens of thousands of eligible students from places there next year), will mean that a declining percentage of the state's workforce will receive the university education that is vital to the knowledge economy of the 21st century. That would condemn California--and with it America--to irreversible decline.

Or (and this will take considerable pressure from businesses, institutions, and voters) the governor and the legislature will do what it takes to enable UC and Cal State to carry out their missions, which will ensure that the state's higher education system continues to make California a place of innovation, invention and progress, and the engine of the national economy.

And what it takes is not all that much, in the scheme of things.

In the glory days of the 1970s, the UC system claimed a mere third of a percent of the state's personal income, or in other words 33 cents or so for every $100 earned. That's not much of a sacrifice compared to the benefits that a readily affordable and world-class university system returned to the state, enabling the development of its high tech economy through the 1980s.

A return to that level of public investment from the present outlay (a difference of less than one percent of the state budget) would allow the university both to safeguard its mission and to bring tuition back down close to what it was in 2000 (less than half what it is today).

But if the opposite path is taken, further cuts in state support will inevitably be made up for by ever increasing tuition hikes. UC would go the way of other state universities, like Michigan's--which charges twice what UCLA and Berkeley do.

A series of budget cuts since 1990 have sapped UC's vitality. State support once covered about 75 percent of the university's core spending: the money that is spent on its everyday educational mission. Today, it covers less than half, and it is set to decline even further.

Tuition is the only source of funding that can compensate for such losses, which is why it has been increasing.

The only other alternative is to cut spending, but reckless cuts cost far more in the long run than what they save in the short term.

For example, UC faces a cut in state support of $637 million for the current academic year. It plans to compensate for this with a combination of devastating layoffs and furloughs for faculty and staff, tuition hikes, and enormous slashes to academic programs.

Such cuts will have both immediate and lasting consequences for how the university functions. They are unsustainable.

Research and teaching are the two inseparable missions of UC. Faculty members teach what we discover, and we train our students not merely what we know but how to make discoveries of their own. Not only is what (and how) I teach in my classes today not what was taught five or ten years ago, but even my freshman students have immediate access to the product of my research as I move between my two roles of research and teaching. If I did not have time and resources to conduct my research, I would only be able to teach what I already know. Knowledge would stand still; or, rather, it would be developed by--and for--others, primarily at private institutions whose gates are barred to all but a lucky few.

The whole point of UC, in fact, is that it makes a research faculty equal to that of Harvard, Princeton and Chicago (UC has more Nobel Prize winners than any of those institutions) directly accessible to far more students, for a fraction of the tuition.

If the people of California want to preserve that access for their children, they must act now.

Reducing the size of the faculty while increasing the number of students per instructor--making classes larger and fewer--would diminish both the quantity and quality of instructional contact. Small seminars on specialized topics would go. Large anonymous lecture classes on general topics would prevail. Eliminating classes and majors would thin the academic offerings available to students and impoverish them. Professors would not get to know their students, to mentor and guide them, to write the highly personalized letters of recommendation that students depend on to get into graduate, medical or law schools. Students would pay far more and get far less than what was available to previous generations.

It does not have to be this way.

Now is the time to change course, by demanding that the state government do what is right for all Californians and save our higher education system from the devastation that otherwise might lie in store.