Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

The University of California (UC) has long been recognized as one of the best public school systems in the nation. Its prestige attracts top brains from throughout the world at every level — from its students to its faculty, management and staff. Its research has developed products that create jobs and in turn drive California’s economy, one of the top ten largest in the world, and its public school pricing has historically allowed the less fortunate a chance to compete in a world that increasingly requires a high-quality education.

But in view of the global economic crisis, the UC’s future looks grim.

Hiked fees, hacked sports teams and the loss of some of the university’s key professors seem to indicate that the UC may not be able to overcome new fiscal challenges.

“We’ll get through this period,” UC President Mark Yudof said. “The University of California will recover.”

The question, then, is: at what cost?

As the world battles the deepest recession since the great depression, UC faculty, administrators, students and the Board of Regents are engaged in a last-ditch attempt to salvage California’s greatest asset: higher education.

California’s Crisis

Chris Connery, a professor of literature and cultural studies at UC Santa Cruz, said a common misunderstanding among students is that the worldwide economic crisis has not really affected the UC. He explained that in reality, the UC’s financial situation is severe enough that it requires action at the state level.

“I meet too many students who think that there is no budget crisis and that the University of California could actually pay for this stuff on its own,” Connery said. “[They think] that this is sort of a smoke screen for raising tuition. I think that’s a real misunderstanding of the situation.”

Last summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators passed a bill to clear the state’s $26 billion deficit. By cutting funding for future services like higher education, Sacramento was able to save itself $813 million from the UC alone.

But these cuts don’t come without a price for students and faculty. The UC regents, a 26-member governing body of the University of California, were forced to respond to reduced funding. Their solution was to implement a plan to raise student fees in order to make up for one-quarter of the lost $813 million. The plan also included mandatory furloughs, or unpaid time off, as well as pay cuts for faculty.

UCSC professor Michael Hutchison, co-director of the Santa Cruz Institute of International Economics and senior research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Unit at the University of Copenhagen, explained how the global economic crisis correlates with the state economic crisis.

“The national financial crisis is hurting the whole economy,” Hutchison said. “California was much harder hit than the national average and the reason is we were booming much more than the national average.”

What enabled California’s boom was the housing bubble. When the bubble burst, and housing prices dropped sharply, unemployment subsequently skyrocketed to the current rate of about 12 percent which, according the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, is 2 percent higher than the national average.

Hutchison explained that due to this unemployment increase and housing bubble burst, the overall worth of citizens’ assets decreased, creating a significant loss in state tax revenues.

“All of our revenue sources from the state — capital gains, income tax, sales tax— all those things are way, way down so it’s all intertwined,” Hutchison said.

The cuts the UC experienced, as well as subsequently increased fees, are ultimately a result of a state law that requires the governor and state legislators to balance the budget.

“[Gov. Schwarzenegger and state legislators] have to do a combination of raising taxes or fees and lowering expenditures,” Hutchison said. “Part of the increase in fees is student fees and tuition, and [part of] lowering expenditures is decreasing the UC budget.”

State Priorities

In opposition to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s current fiscal policy towards higher education, critics point to the California Master Plan for Higher Education — a plan written by the California Department of Education promising funding to accommodate enrollment.

The plan, which was drafted long before the current fiscal crisis, outlines the mission of higher education in California and serves as the basis for current agreements between the state and the UC.

For the years 1960-1975, the Master Plan states: “The capacity of the State of California to support public higher education is determined primarily by three factors: (a) the size of the stream of income from which such support must be drawn; (b) the efficiency and effectiveness of the tax instruments by which this support is realized; and (c) the will of the people of the state to devote adequate funds for this purpose.”

Professor Hutchison acknowledged that as the economic recovery process occurs, fewer cuts will be necessary. However, he also pointed out that the state’s priorities seem clear when comparing the amount of state funding given to prisons versus higher education.

“If you look at the University of California state funds over the last decade they have not been treated well,” Hutchison said. “There have been very small increases in the state budget to the UC, but things like prisons and other state expenditures have gone up markedly.”

Hutchison went on to say that the only way to make funding for public higher education a priority is to clearly demonstrate how much the university system directly and indirectly benefits the state as whole.

For example, the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to three U.S. scientists, including UC San Francisco’s Elizabeth Blackburn. Her research helped discover telomerase, the enzyme that indirectly gives cancer cells life. In addition, in 2007, UCSC was ranked number one in the nation for its impact in the field of physics.

The Current Compact, Student Fees and Privatization

In 2004 Gov. Schwarzenegger and UC officials agreed on a compact developed within the context of the fiscal crisis currently confronting the state of California. The agreement promised less funding from the state compared to prior years, increased fees for students and the need for outside funding sources.

Connery sees this agreement as bad news for the UC.

“We think that the compact that our officials signed a few years ago with Governor Schwarzenegger was a terrible thing to have done,” Connery said. “We support a strengthened master plan. We think Schwarzenegger has been deeply hostile to the University of California.”

The compact, which outlines years 2005-06 through 2010-11, says, “In order to help maintain quality and enhance academic and research programs, UC will continue to seek additional private resources and maximize other fund sources available to the University to support basic programs.”

The student fee policy of the compact assumes that UC will continue to collect student fees even “without a corresponding reduction in state funds.”

Hutchison said that what makes a university privatized is the extent to which it relies on students to pay for their own educational services. He said that the ever-increasing fees imposed on UC students bring the system closer and closer to resembling a private institution.

“We’re not there yet by a long shot, but it’s a disturbing trend. Open access to the University is being gradually closed,” he said. “In my opinion that’s a bad thing — we have a lot of private universities that charge extremely high fees.”

Jeb Purucker, a graduate student in the UCSC’s literature department who has been involved in the recent occupation-resisting budget cuts, said the 2004 compact treats higher education as a private good, or a service that should be paid for by individuals instead of the state. He believes that UC officials are increasingly viewing the state as a business partner, as opposed to a source of public good.

“If you want an education you should be able to get an education and that is not the logic currently running the show,” he said. “The only way that we can change that is if we get a lot of people to stand up to the current logic of privatization.”

Connery said many students are wrong about feeling they are unable to change the priorities of the state and the university.

“Some students I talk to have this idea that, ‘Everything is collapsing … and that’s just how things are going to be and I can’t do anything about it,’ but they can do something about it,” Connery said. “If we had a large student movement demanding free or near-free public higher education these people would have to listen.”

Out of a Ditch

Chancellor George Blumenthal told City on a Hill Press that the budget proposal UCSC administrators are preparing for the next fiscal year does not include the furloughs currently in effect.

“I know a lot of people fear that [furloughs] will be extending but there are no guarantees of anything. Based on what I know now the mostly likely outcome is that it will end at the end of the year,” Blumenthal said. “I think it’s important that it end because to continue these pay reductions and furloughs really undermines the morale of faculty and staff at the university.”

Blumenthal went on to say that he couldn’t provide a more definitive answer because he, like everyone else, is not sure about what the state is going to do.

“We are so dependent on what the state of California does and they are not a reliable partner,” he said.

Professor Hutchison said that as the economy recovers there is a good possibility that the UC won’t have to continue the cuts in the future.

“We see a very cyclical budget. In good times we tend to have rapidly expanding revenues coming into the state and that means there will be less pressure to cut budgets and raise fees at the UC,” Hutchison said.

Many people are steadfastly maintaining hope that broad economic recovery will ultimately restore the UC, and that however dire the fiscal situation may seem now, it will not be the end of California’s most prestigious intellectual institution.

Professor Connery commented on the value of higher education: “Students should think of higher education as a right, as a right that all should have and as a valued component of life. Education is not just to get you a higher or better paying job, it’s to enrich your life, and help you enrich the lives of others around you.”