Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

Cuts hurt. From the student who must take out more loans, increasing their burden of debt in future years, to the librarian promised a job at one of the greatest learning institutions in the world, only to be furloughed.

These cuts are part of a familiar cycle ­— the dysfunctional state government, constantly without money, slices more and more from its once great system of public higher education.

As much as students, parents and faculty moan and groan, complain and protest, the fact still remains that Californians have forgotten about higher education.

According to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, state contributions to the UC, which make up a sizable portion of its overall budget, have shrunk by almost half since 1967, yet enrollment has increased 178 percent. While money from the state has plummeted downward, student fees, which fill this sizable gap, have gone up about 449 percent in the past 40 years.

UC officials have offered no clear solution to the state’s divestment in higher education. “I don’t really think a public university can be the leader in actually proposing reforms,” UC President Mark Yudof said in an October interview with various student media organizations.

In Sacramento, there are two big interest groups: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and California Teachers Association. One advocates for the ever-growing California Department of Corrections; the other for increased entitlements to K-12 education.

Both of these powerful interests have something we don’t: lobbyists in Sacramento who kick and scream to fight for their clients, infiltrate the capital and ensure a share of the state’s expenditures.

It might sound a little scary — lobbying is a pretty taboo word these days — but in a democracy, interest groups move opinions and, more importantly, they move money.

Lobbying is not just hiring a fat cat lawyer to wine and dine legislators. It’s talking to your state senator or assembly member and letting them know how student fees and budget cuts are eroding our education. Our state legislators control how much money the UC will receive, yet most of us could not name either of our district’s representatives.

Aside from organizing a letter writing campaign — sending a few cookie-cutter letters to the governor’s office that will passed to an acne-faced intern and answered with the template, ‘Thank you for getting involved,’ response — it comes down to organizing teacher and student groups and parading through the state capital in Sacramento, showing the people who vote to put money in prisons instead of labs or lecture halls just how many people they are affecting.

This summer, I saw hundreds of tea-baggers railing against the Obama-socialist-Hitler-Marxist big government takeover. No matter how much we laugh and poke fun at their absurd name, they were getting their message across — and not because they are some radical right-wing group or because they occupied a building, but because they got into legislators’ faces, forcing them to pay attention to their grievance.

What if students did that? Instead of overrunning buildings and walking out of classes, go “occupy” the state capital: flood the halls of the capitol building with students and faculty, impatient with the way legislators blow off higher education. There are more fed-up students, willing to go to Sacramento to explain how the state’s future is being sold out, than there are tea-baggers who can compare our president to Stalin.

Fixing the UCs’ and CSUs’ budgets, with a promise to return to the ideals of the 1960 Master Plan — the one that proposed education should be tuition-free because it is an investment in our future — could spark an Obama-like fervor in the youth. With a pledge to reinvigorate public higher education and to reinvest in the institutions that create future prosperity, any candidate, Republican or Democrat, could gain an army of student volunteers.

If university leaders, faculty and students don’t get involved and don’t demand a change from the state, then we will end up with more of the same: an endemic stalemate and partisanship in the legislature that decides that higher education is not worth its time, and another administration that cares more about stogies than students. If we are the most important part of California’s economy — its future leaders and discoverers — we must prove it.