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PETER H. KING

Getting What You Pay For

May 18, 1997|PETER H. KING

SAN LUIS OBISPO — In my days at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the campus radio station employed this wonderfully twisted student disc jockey. His name was Al Yankovich; yes, the same Weird Al who now, more than 20 years later, reigns in record-land as the king of bent comedy. I never once listened to his show.

In my junior year, the Mustang baseball team had a shortstop who hit .308 and was said to be a wizard with his glove. His name was Ozzie Smith; yes, the same Ozzie Smith who played so well for so long as a St. Louis Cardinal. I never went to see him play.

College, you see, is a wonderful thing, sadly wasted on students. Only later do the missed opportunities become apparent: the languages that could have been learned; the great books that could have been studied. Conversely, it takes time and distance to comprehend what, against all odds, was in fact absorbed at college, to appreciate the gift. Only lately have I come to recognize my debt to Cal Poly--and the taxpayers who built what once was and still might be the premier system of state colleges in the land.

This awareness flows in part from enlightened self-interest. My own kids grow a month older every day, making the question of where they will go to college less, well, academic. All of which leads, in a roundabout way, to a little-noticed battle waged at Cal Poly this spring--an intramural struggle with far-reaching implications.

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At issue was the Cal Poly Plan, an innovative assault on the forces that threaten to erode the quality of, not only Cal Poly, but the entire, 22-campus Cal State system. To simplify, a huge demographic bulge is approaching college age in California--maybe as many as a half-million additional students in the next decade. At the same time, the system's share of general fund money grows ever thinner; all those prisons to build. The potential impact seems obvious: more overcrowding and out-of-date equipment, and less opportunity for California to fulfill its vital promise of full access to quality higher education.

Cal Poly's solution was a compact between administration, faculty and the students. A steering committee would target enhancements--new faculty positions, computer equipment and so forth--beyond what could be provided through existing resources. These would be financed in large measure by the students themselves, through a series of fee increases, or so the planners planned.

Two weeks ago, the Cal Poly Plan was put to a vote. The students embraced the notion of campus improvements, but rejected by a 3-1 margin the fee increases to pay for them. This was not quite so selfish as it might seem. The students, after all, merely inherited the twin problems of overcrowding and under-funding. They argued--naively, perhaps, but not irrationally--that the resources to solve them should come from Sacramento.

Nonetheless, the referendum had been watched closely from Humboldt to San Diego, and for the system's campus presidents the defeat was, in the words of Cal State Chancellor Barry Munitz, "a shot to the solar plexus." He said they will be gathering soon to contemplate, if you will, Plan B.

Which is where Weird Al, Ozzie and I come in.

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We are part of a vast, lost army, an estimated 2 million alums of former state college students. The estimate is crude because, incredibly, no central database exists, and alumni-tracking at most campuses is haphazard. State colleges, unlike private institutions and even the UC system, traditionally felt little need to tap their alumni for support. Popular and politically well-protected, the system just rolled along.

In this way, the campuses deprived themselves of a potentially powerful ally. California's middle class has long-dominated state politics, and its state colleges are nothing if not factories of the middle class: schoolteachers, sales managers, engineers, farmers, small business owners. Who knows what they might now be willing to give back--if only someone would ask.

Munitz intends to ask. For starters, he has dispatched aides to build a comprehensive database, in effect to locate his army. The purpose is not merely to find wallets that can be pried open, but also to marshal political clout. "If that untapped army won't come to the table aggressively," he said, "change cannot occur."

The betting here is that the call to arms will be answered. Popular cynicism aside, most people do want to do the right thing. Not long ago in the Mustang Daily--the campus newspaper where I cut teeth as a sports columnist--there was a story about Ozzie Smith offering to help raise $1 million for a new Cal Poly sports facility. Still to be heard from are Weird Al, myself and some 2 million others.

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