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The Dream in Transition

Budget realities undermine the old model of higher education. More nonpublic funding is the future.

June 20, 2004|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is university professor of history at USC and state librarian emeritus. His "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," will be published in September by Alfred A. Knopf.

SAN FRANCISCO — Two recent developments underscore the crisis -- and transformation -- facing the University of California. One is negative: Because of budget shortfalls, up to 7,600 California students otherwise eligible for admission to UC may be diverted this fall to two-year community colleges for the first half of their undergraduate experience. The second development, more positive in tone, is the recent announcement by UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale that UCLA is launching a $250-million fundraising initiative to increase the number of endowed professorships to 330 -- out of a total faculty of 1,700 tenured and tenure-track professors -- as well as to recruit and retain talented graduate students.

The proposed diversion to junior colleges of UC-qualified applicants has been met with much hand-wringing. Since the Master Plan for Higher Education was adopted in 1960, the University of California has essentially guaranteed admission to the top 12.5% of graduating high school students in the state. Now this guarantee, so evocative of the hope and promise of California in the 1950s and early 1960s, is being renegotiated, however temporarily. Some see this renegotiation as a dire, even apocalyptic indication that the state is disengaging from its master-plan commitment to sustain UC with public funds as a research university second to none. That repudiated promise, some lament, represents yet another nail in the coffin of the California dream.

The state budget currently under consideration contains numerous cutbacks of once-untouchable programs. Some of these reductions are permanent. The proposed cuts to the UC budget are temporary; they may not even survive final budget negotiations. The spending decreases, moreover, were negotiated by UC officials and the governor precisely because the university officials knew that UC had to make sacrifices to move California state government back into the black. It is sad, even shocking, that a 44-year-old covenant should be broken in our time. But these are the fiscal realities of the season. Besides, these 7,600 students are not being denied an education at UC; they are only being asked to begin at a community college.

The cutbacks, however, do raise some philosophical issues. In the post-World War II era, taxpaying Californians, acting through their elected representatives, bought into a program that was most fully articulated by former UC President Clark Kerr in his Godkin Lectures at Harvard University, later published as "The Uses of the University." He contended that the modern research university -- not just UC, but any great research university -- was a diversified institution, a "multiversity" serving the various needs of society, including economic and cultural, through research and, to a lesser extent, teaching. The multiversity was society's think tank, essential to progress.

Even as he delivered his lectures in the early 1960s, Kerr was buoyed and sustained by the success of the UC experiment. After World War II, UC had transformed itself from a first-rate regional university into a first-rate world university, and it had done this, in significant measure, because California taxpayers saw in UC a vehicle for their own betterment. That the taxpayer was buying into Kerr's vision became more apparent with the adoption of the master plan in 1960. Taxpayers were willing to support UC even though nearly 90% of them would never see their children enrolled at a UC campus.

The master plan also consolidated state college campuses into a multicampus California State University with its own board of trustees. The Cal State system would serve the top 30% of high school graduates. A two-year community college system would offer vocational and paraprofessional training and the first two years of arts and sciences, transferable to either Cal State or UC. Thus, California conceptualized itself as a higher-education utopia, in which each Californian would have the opportunity to maximize his or her potential, whatever the individual's capacities and talents might be. It was a vast and grand democratic plan, and it included an agreement to allow UC to remain an elite research institution because, as Kerr would point out, everybody would benefit.

The shock being faced by many Californians these days, especially those in affluent and educated circles -- the people whose children can meet UC's rigid requirements for admission -- is that things have changed. First, the conviction that everyone is participating equally in the success of the UC system, even though their children will never get there, has come under question. Taxpayers have come to realize that UC -- some of its campuses, at least -- is by definition a very elite institution. There is nothing wrong in UC being an elite institution; it remains a source of pride for most taxpaying Californians. But that pride has lost the unequivocal and certain assent of 1960.

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