I was invited to Cal State L.A. for a "Walk of Shame."
On a three-hour tour of the academic pride of L.A.'s Eastside, I met a laid-off sociology lecturer and saw overcrowded classrooms where students were being turned away from courses they needed to graduate.
I visited with a stressed-out librarian and counselor, both of whom described the effects of the latest round of budget cuts and fee increases.
"I've never seen it this bad," said the counselor, Larry Grijalva, a 23-year-veteran and graduate of San Diego State. "We can't even get kids into the remedial English classes because they're all full."
I like to think of Cal State L.A. and the 22 other campuses of the Cal State system as the workhorse younger siblings of the state public university system.
The richer University of California might win the Nobel Prizes. But it's the Cal State system that gives us most of our police officers, teachers, nurses, social workers and probation officers.
"This has always been a place where working-class people could get an education and contribute to society," said pan-African studies professor Melina Abdullah, who led the "Walk of Shame." "If you take this away, you're relegating them to jobs at Wal-Mart and fast food."
These days, the big budget shortfalls in Sacramento have left our Cal State brothers and sisters unprotected. All Californians should fight to protect them. But the students also need a few lessons in standing up for themselves -- or else they'll always be on the losing end of those Capitol funding brawls.
Five faculty members and students made this point on the first day of classes, as part of a day of protest at college campuses all over the state. They held up a series of five words on signs outside the main parking lot:
"When Will You Fight Back?"
The sense I got: not soon.
The thousands of students I saw rushing to classes on Thursday did not appear to be ready to rise up in revolt. The majority had managed to get into most if not all of the classes they needed. If they got into all their classes, where's the big prob?
Cal State L.A. is a commuter campus, for the most part. Only a handful of students have time really to mount any kind of organized resistance to higher fees, reduced faculty and shorter library hours.
"Every year they raise the tuition," Natasha Khanna, 24, told me. "But this year it was 32% instead of the 10% they usually raise it." Khanna, a second-year student, said this without irony. She's not old enough to know what it's like to get a college education without tuition and fees automatically going up every year.
The libraries at Cal State L.A. are closed on Sundays now and also on six Fridays a year. Professors and university employees have to take 24 unpaid furlough days this year.
Compare 2009 to 2008, and the situation at Cal State might not look like a catastrophe. Each year, the system bends a little but does not break.
To see how bad things have become, you really need to take the longer view.
Brush fires can descend upon a neighborhood in minutes, and an earthquake can change the city landscape in seconds. But that great, man-made disaster called the budget crisis is a slow-moving glacier that's been eating away at our educational dreams for years now.
The modern Cal State system took shape during that era of plenty when our state leaders crafted "A Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960-1975."
Under that plan, any student who finished in the top third of a public high school class got an automatic ticket to the Cal State system -- with the top one-eighth eligible for the University of California. The plan also pledged to stay true to "the long-standing principle" that state schools "shall be tuition free to all residents of the state."
It didn't matter if you were the son of a millionaire or a construction worker. If you got good grades, the state paid for a quality university education. Gratis. It was your right.
Back in the day, we called that a "meritocracy."
Fast forward to fall 2009 at Cal State L.A. The tuition is $1,342 per quarter, with an additional $205.90 in mandatory fees thrown in. That works out to about $5,000 per year. It costs twice as much to attend the University of California.
Maybe it's not enough to keep the average working person from getting a degree. But it sure ain't free.
Over time, people get used to a fee hike here or there, as well as the little indignities of a campus that doesn't have the resources to fulfill all the hopes of those enrolled.
Sandra Tapia, 19, paid her tuition without complaint, and sat Thursday in the front row of Chicano Studies 111, a course that earns her credits toward her general education requirement.
Tapia got there early because she knew the reality of today's Cal State: Don't show up for the first day of class and the instructor might give your space to someone else.
She had already been turned away from two other general education classes that were full.