By Daniel Zarchy
Co-Editor in Chief

John Garamendi has long been a major player in California public education, fighting for student fee freezes and pushing for increased funding within the state’s school systems. Now, as the only declared candidate in a gubernatorial election rumored to be a who’s-who of California politics, he sat down with City on a Hill Press to discuss his campaign and the future of our public schools.

Do you feel that the Master Plan for Education applies to the UC system the way it is now?

The Master Plan remains an extraordinary framework. However, the implementation of the master plan has been, in recent years, badly applied. And there are several things that are going on here. First, the fact that students are being forced to pay an ever-increasing portion of the burden of education. And so the notion of a free higher education that is envisioned in the master plan is rather rapidly eroding. The second thing that’s happened is that the articulation between the community colleges and the universities is weak, and needs to be strengthened, so that students that are in all of the community colleges, should they want to be on a track for a four-year higher education, can get on that track and get into one of the state university campuses or a University of California campus.

The notion of a free higher education in a state that has a growing population and a budget deficit — is that a fantasy? Is that still attainable somehow?

Of course. We’re the seventh wealthiest economy in the world. We’re not an impoverished developing country — we’re the seventh wealthiest economy in the world. It’s not that we don’t have the money, it’s that we’ve lost the vision and purpose and value for a free higher education. This economy was really built on that free higher education. The state has lost the vision and goal that can be obtained with such an education system that’s free and available to everyone who’s qualified. There’s surely enough money in this economy to do it.

As governor, what would you do differently to achieve that? Where would you find the money?

Let’s start at the beginning. The universities, both the CSU system and the UC system, have lost the ability to argue for themselves. The goals, the purpose of the university, and the university’s relevance to the society and economy are not articulated, because neither system has a strategic plan that answers the question ‘why are we here?’ They have a broad vision, but they do not have a plan. And therefore, it’s very difficult for the university, its supporters or elected officials to argue for increased funding for the university systems. For example, what is the role of UC in producing doctors? Scientists? … There’s no clear articulation in how the UC meets the needs of the state of California. And that’s what a strategic plan should do. With that plan in hand, that answers that question, “We need the UC because” … now it’s possible to make an argument to the legislature, to the public, for adequate funding for the university.

After you make the case to the California public that this is why we need UC, are you seeing that as a tax increase?

Well, let’s recognize that the Legislature and governor are taxing students to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars in new tax. That’s the only tax that’s been raised. In this entire budget debacle, the only tax that has been raised is a tax on students. That is a particularly stupid tax. You’re eating your seed-corn. Tens of thousands of students will not go to school because they can’t afford it. So, where do you get the money? This is the seventh-wealthiest economy in the world.

Do you see a shakeup of the Board of Regents in your plan?

No, I think the board is made up of very capable, intelligent individuals. I think that they needed leadership, which we’re very hopeful [UC president Mark] Yudof will provide. I’ve already seen a significant change in the attitude of regents on the issues of student fees. I’ve been pounding away on this issue for the last year and a half. … I think we will see a reluctance and even an unwillingness from the regents to raise tuition further. That’s my goal.

In terms of diversity on the UC campus, do you support any form of affirmative action?

You’re using a word that really can’t be used when dealing with this issue. There are numerous ways in which the university can and should reach and bring into its campuses the diverse population of California. The university has not been successful in reaching out to certain ethnic groups in California, and certainly the lower economic class of California is not represented at the university. So there are things that can be done, and the things that should be done are relationships with community colleges.

Many of the community colleges across the state have a very high proportion of underrepresented minorities and economic minorities. So, a relationship with those campuses would bring to the UC quality students who are diverse in their racial background and also their economic background.

But in terms of different admissions standards to encourage diversity, that’s not something that you support?

That is before the regents, and I assume will be taken up … I think it’s a useful way in dealing with the fact that many students are unable to get the kind of classes and counseling to get them into the University of California, and this proposal, I think, is one that has significant merit.

One of the hot issues on UC campuses these days is the labor dispute between AFSCME and the administration. Do you play a part in that?

I’m involved in attempting to resolve that dispute. … The regents strongly feel that we should be paying living wages to everyone that works at UC. The regents have made that very clear to the administration, and that’s certainly my position.

Is there enough money to settle the labor dispute?

Yes, there is enough money to settle the labor dispute. About 85 percent of the labor dispute is in the hospital system, which is an enterprise organization that has significant positive cash flow — very significant, certainly sufficient to deal with this issue. The remaining 8,500 people are on campuses and only a small portion of those are dependent on the state budget.

There has been a lot of criticism of the substantial size of Mr. Yudof’s salary and compensation package. Do you think that that has justified paying him that much and doing the renovations on his house?

I think you separate the house from that issue. The house is the residence of the president of UC, it has been for decades, and it is in need of repair. I do think it would have been good if it had been funded with private instead of public money, but that didn’t happen. But that house needed renovations, no matter who the president was, whatever the salary might have been.

On the other question about his salary, I have been a strong opponent of increasing salaries. However, I did vote for Mr. Yudof because I felt it was absolutely essential to get a new president. If this is what it took, then let’s get it done. But other salaries, I have always opposed salary increases, and I will continue to do so.

What message would you want to relate to students about your campaign?

For the students, it’s all about the students. The students at UC, the students at elementary school, high school — that’s our future. If we properly and fully prepare those students for the challenges that they will meet in life, our state and our country are going to do very well. That means that we have to put the investment into education. It’s the most important investment that any society makes. It is clearly the most important investment that California will make to sustain our economy, to deal with social issues that will be even more significant in the years ahead, and to meet the challenges that this precarious world presents to us. So it’s all about education.

The University of California, specifically, is the best in the world, but it is on a slow starvation diet at the moment. It’s a diet that forces those who are students to pay more and more and the general public to pay less and less for the university. … The result is a slow eroding of the ability of the university to achieve the promise that it has made to Californians.