By Claire Walla
Though construction is slated for sometime next year and some are threatening to halt it completely, the Biomedical Sciences Building is already a presence at UC Santa Cruz.
The proposed building site is now just a small collection of activists and trees rising up from a small parking lot on Science Hill.
But for administrators, this space represents the future growth of the university, an opportunity to expand campus resources in order to accommodate the ever-growing population of the state of California.
And for protesters, the plans to build this land show a university that is growing too quickly beyond capacity and heading in the wrong direction.
They see a university that’s emphasizing more lucrative programs in the sciences, allowing university education to compete with dollar bills.
Essentially, they see a public institution that’s slowly turning into a corporation.
Within a sea of budget crises and an expanding pool of UC applicants, the biomedical sciences building is really only the tip of the iceberg.
And it all begs one important question: will the need for dollars trump the quality of UC education?
UCSC Professor Emeritus Bill Friedland has been on this campus since the ‘60s, and was the founding chair of the community studies department. Since then, he has seen a significant shift in the direction of academics at UCSC.
The state’s educational system was built around what’s known as the Three Tier System—composed of universities, state colleges and community colleges—and the UC specifically was founded on pillars of access, affordability and quality.
“It created probably the most advanced system of higher education in the world,” he said. “But now that’s being significantly eroded.”
State funding for education was most significantly crippled in 1978 when Proposition 13 effectively cut property taxes, all of which had gone to higher education.
Between 2000 and 2004 the state cut 15 percent of its funding for the UC, so that now UCSC only receives around 38 percent of its total operating budget from the state. Friedland, among others, feels that this level of state support hardly qualifies the university to latch onto the term “public” anymore, because it completely undercuts the values that the university stands for.
Though some argue otherwise.
In a public address last October, California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer offered “privatization” as a viable option for the future of UC finances, because it would relieve the state’s debt by roughly $7 billion a year.
Without state funds, the UC would only be able to stay afloat with private donations and inevitable tuition hikes.
“Most Californians don’t want to think about this because the implication is horrendous,” Friedland said. “But when the state treasurer says ‘privatization,’ then it really becomes an issue.”
While the state’s budget deficit may seem unyielding, Friedland doesn’t think that the situation is hopeless.
At this point, he believes negotiations between the UC and the state are in the hands of the UC Regents, but it’s also at this tier of leadership that Friedland believes communication between the UC and the state has failed.
Though the UC is being run like a corporation, “The Regents don’t have that kind of vested interest in the university system that the corporate board of a business is supposed to have,” he said. Instead, Regents are appointed because they have a “public presence,” and because they have to have some sort of “political affinity to govern.”
He said that Regents often do not have the university’s best interests in mind and are sometimes detached from the universities’ needs. “They don’t bring to their work the kind of seriousness that a truly corporate, responsible board of governing does.”
And for this reason, Friedland argues, the UC Regents have not fought for university finances nearly as hard as they should.
Aaron Dankman, a fifth-year politics student at UCSC, is also frustrated with UC leadership.
“It’s the job of those in the Office of the President—and Robert Dynes himself—to keep the state legislature in check,” he said. “They can fix the [university’s funding] problem by forcing the state legislature to keep funding for the university going.”
But Dankman does not think this will happen anytime soon.
“There’s mismanagement at the top,” he said. “And the Regents can’t be responsible for the only job they have: to get money from the legislature.”
Dankman also feels that this mismanagement has filtered into the administrative ranks on the UCSC campus. He has been involved with various student movements since his freshman year, and said that he has continually had to deal with administrators who carelessly pass off the messages that he and other activists have tried to communicate.
He said that it was this sentiment that set the precedent for the tree-sit on Science Hill.
“Compromising isn’t the point, it’s too late for that,” he said. “When you sit down and bargain with the university, you lose.”
Though the protest has come to represent a number of different movements on campus, Dankman said that the underlying issue is more simple. The point is not for everyone to participate in the tree-sit, but for everyone to see the tree-sit and take action, to hold the administration accountable for the direction in which it’s steering the university.
“Private funding is not the solution to a budget crisis,” Dankman said. “It doesn’t raise all ships.”
Although according to Executive Vice Chancellor David Kliger, it doesn’t necessarily hurt either.
Kliger points to UCSC’s affiliation with the NASA/Ames research labs in the Silicon Valley to illustrate his point. UCSC scientists are performing research in areas of interest to NASA, in exchange for what are called “indirect costs.”
“We get paid by NASA for the research that we’re doing,” Kliger said. “And we’ve used some of the funding for that to support grants and fellowships in the humanities.”
There’s no escaping the state’s budget crisis, he said, and UCSC’s presence in Silicon Valley only helps to amend this financial loss.
Additionally, Kliger said, the most promising way to combat state financial issues is not to rely on the Regents to re-negotiate the budget, but for UC campuses to approach the state legislature from the outside.
Kliger said that other influential people need to talk to the legislature, because when the university tries to convince the state of its financial needs, “it’s viewed as self-serving.”
And UCSC’s presence in Silicon Valley will help with this effort because “there are a lot of influential people there,” he said.
“The other piece of it is that we would like to find more private individuals who would like to support the university so that we can continue to provide the services that we do,” he said.
However UCSC’s role in Silicon Valley has been scrutinized as one that places the university in this scientific arena for financial gain, rather than academic enrichment.
But Kliger would argue that both are attainable.
He said that there is little conflict of interest between the aims of NASA and the work being done by university students and professors. And while he said that the research is mostly work that they would have gladly pursued otherwise, he also stressed that most of the external funding that filters into UCSC comes in the form of individual donations and foundation grants, which come without corporate influence.
Kliger emphasized that external funding helps the campus as a whole, and admitted that the campus will focus on expanding graduate programs in the future. But while Friedman believes this to be detrimental to undergraduate education, Kliger said that this move will actually benefit undergraduate studies.
“Some people might say that we’re deemphasizing the undergraduate education, but I think it really is a benefit for undergrads to have grad students around them,” he said. “It enhances the whole atmosphere of undergraduate education.”
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein believes that there are strategic motives behind universities bolstering graduate student education.
“I’m a student, so I don’t see it from the administration’s side, but it seems like graduate students are a better investment for universities,” said Prescod-Weinstein, former UCSC graduate student. “We work and we can produce a product for universities to claim.”
Though a graduate student in the sciences herself (she studied astrophysics and astronomy under current Chancellor George Blumenthal), Prescod-Weinstein believes wholeheartedly that UCSC leans too heavily on both the sciences and graduate-level studies for financial gain.
Because of large classroom settings and a lack of resources at the undergraduate level, Prescod-Weinstein believes that research often takes financial precedence over undergraduate education, which indiscriminately leaves both arts and science programs in the dust.
“The oddity that I found as a TA was in how unknowledgeable students were of basic algebra,” she said. And because undergraduate professors only cover basic concepts in a classroom full of hundreds of students each week, TAs are left to pick up the pieces. “We’re putting more money into the sciences, but are we putting more money into science education?”
Overall, Prescod-Weinstein is concerned that the future of education in the state of California will be threatened by a serious financial blow, which will cause it to lean much too drastically on corporate funds and tuition hikes.
A California native, Prescod-Weinstein said, “It is thanks to public schools and programs that I am where I am today, so I care very deeply that other youth get the same opportunities that I did.”
This is also important to Felicia McGinty, who said that providing academic opportunities is exactly why UCSC is moving forward with the LRDP and why she is pushing toward more fund-raising efforts.
As Executive Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, it is McGinty’s job to provide as many students as possible with opportunities outside of the classroom, and to enhance their academic experiences without raising costs. But today her job is not easy, because the student affairs division only receives 30 percent of the overall sum from students’ registration fees.
“I’m perplexed that we don’t have enough money to support things,” she said. “And I’m not above asking corporations for money because I think students are worth it.
“I consider myself a principled leader, so I’m not saying we need to change the name of the university to ‘Bank of America,’ but I’m simply saying that, in this day and age, if we don’t look to do some sort of fund-raising, [then finances will be] on the backs of students.
“And if that’s corporatization, then I’m guilty.”
As plans for the biomedical sciences building continue to be pushed through to fruition, the state budget will continue to drop, and the university will continue to fight for more funds.
“Thinking about this makes me want to cry,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “It’s a real tragedy that we’re in an era in which a valuable public service is being functionally privatized. California has one of the largest economies in the world, shouldn’t we have a university system that matches that?”
The obvious solution, according to Prescod-Weinstein, would be to raise taxes in California.
And Friedland agrees.
“In order to restore that kind of quality [education], we need the citizens of California to say, ‘we’re prepared to pay for it,’” he said.
“But as you know, that’s like saying ‘God is dead,’ and ‘apple pie is poison.’”
To Friedland, quality education not only means offering students a high level of education and critical thinking skills, it involves a certain level of engagement between both students and faculty members that is just not possible in most large classroom settings.
“It’s necessary to provide you with a good education, and it can be done,” he said. But it’s very expensive to teach smaller classes because of the time it takes away from research and other instruction.
“I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from talking to students, whether graduate or undergraduate—it’s a learning experience for me,” Friedland said. “And when the university says that we have to have higher student-to-teacher ratios and less time to talk [with one another], that bothers me.”