Like many institutions in California, the state's higher education system has fallen on hard times. State general funds for higher education have been cut sharply since 1990, student fees have skyrocketed and enrollment has fallen off, even as the population of potential students increases.
Traditionally, when higher education feels the pinch, it has turned to the state's leadership community. These influential citizens--corporate CEO's, attorneys, editors, religious and civic leaders--have seen higher education as a major investment in the state and have bonded across party lines to protect higher education (especially the University of California) from the budget cutter's knife.
A new study, conducted by Public Agenda for the California Higher Education Policy Center, suggests that leaders today may not be so ready to jump to defend higher education. This report, based on confidential interviews with 29 leaders around the state, found that higher education is still considered essential to the state's social and economic future. But they are less inclined to think that more state support is either a realistic expectation or the only solution to higher education's problems. What has changed?
If my own experience is any guide, part of the answer lies in the broad changes sweeping through industry. In the face of increasingly tough competition we have had to simultaneously improve our product and reduce our costs. This has forced organizations to rethink their strategic goals, cutting across traditional organizational lines, challenging old assumptions and reinventing our own organizations. This process is now at work in services and, indeed, even in government. It has been painful but in many ways highly salutary.