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We Must Reinvent the '60 Master Plan

August 11, 1996|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California" (Oxford University Press)

SACRAMENTO — Forty years ago, the state of higher education in California was much like it is today. The University of California was suffering through the consequences of a bruising loyalty-oath controversy and continuing sniping from legislative committees intent on ferreting out alleged communists in the system. The state colleges were growing restive under the yoke of the state Board of Education and the superintendent of instruction. Energized by regional ambition and the population explosion rocking California, the state colleges wanted their independence from the K-12 system, which meant their own board of governors. Community colleges, meanwhile, were mushrooming. In contrast to UC and the state colleges, they faced the most complex challenge of all: a mixed menu of academic and vocational programs oriented toward the broadest possible audience.

In 1960, after much struggle and debate, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. signed, a Master Plan for Higher Education. It was a win-win situation for all. UC maintained its autonomy and its exclusive rights to the doctorate and professional schools. Granted their own board of trustees, the state colleges achieved their independence from the Board of Education, together with the right to grant the master's degree. The community colleges also got their own board and chancellor, and their dual identity, as a feeder to UC and state colleges and as a direct provider to society of a trained work force, was reconfirmed.

It is now time to revisit and renegotiate the Master Plan. Each sector of our higher-education establishment is showing signs of strain that must be redressed.

California State University has outgrown its hyper-modernist uni-city as one vast system in multiple locations, governed by one chancellor sitting in Long Beach. Forty years ago, UC feared that the state colleges represented a threat to its exclusive right to research, the doctorate and professional education. Hence, UC insisted on a cap to state-college ambitions: no doctorates, except in cooperation with UC (only one such joint Ph.D. was ever granted); no professional schools, and a heavy teaching load (three courses a semester) for a faculty not expected to publish or perish. Yet, many of the state colleges accepting such a cap--San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, San Jose, San Francisco and Chico come to mind--were, all things considered, more serviceable, more energetic, more developed and engaged institutions than such UC campuses as Riverside and Santa Barbara.

Today, it no longer makes sense to impose institutional caps on the Cal State campuses. Nor should such engaged institutions, so much a part of local identity and self-esteem, be administered by a mega-bureaucracy in Long Beach.

First, there is the question of size. Any one of these campuses, pushing as they do 30,000-plus enrollments, would, in smaller states, be the equivalent of Big Ten universities, if only in scale.

Second is the question of regional importance: Many Cal State campuses are primary agents in regional economic restructuring and renewal. Cal State Long Beach President Robert Maxson, for example, has integrated his institution into the question of whither Long Beach in the post-Cold War era. Fresno State is second only to UC Davis as a driving force in agriculture.

It is thus time to deconstruct the Cal State behemoth into a federation of individually chartered universities, with no caps on their programs, provided that proper academic standards be met. The greatness of UC should not rest, in any way, on its ability to tell other institutions what they cannot become. Government should be by locally elected boards. The community colleges of California already possess such local autonomy, which is why they have been so successful in the political/budgetary arena.

For its part, the University of California is sorely in need of a return to the people. Such a return does not imply an acquiescence to untoward political influence or the dilution of the university by pseudo-populist cant, but, rather, a return forward to that sense of identification with the university that ordinary Californians used to have, which enabled the rise of UC to greatness under the presidency of Robert Gordon Sproul.

Sproul instinctively understood the "Old Blue" identity hidden in the hearts of most Californians, especially those in the Legislature. Unspoiled by academic elitism, yet understanding the values and prerogatives of the academy, Sproul possessed the ability to convince ordinary Californians and their legislators that they also were part of the grand adventure of UC. Not everyone might be able to get into UC. Yet, everyone could participate in the benefits that its research and teaching brought to society.

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