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Editorial

The road to mediocrity

The Legislature should not be allowed to micromanage the UC and Cal State systems.

December 17, 2010

Some legislators in Sacramento think they've done such a fine job with the state budget that now they should take over operations at the University of California and California State University. No thanks.

We were as unhappy as anyone when the two public education systems accepted the Legislature's largesse — their budgets received significant increases while most other state services were cut — and then turned around and raised student fees. And yes, they could and should be doing more to rein in expenses at the executive level and elsewhere. But the university systems also have an obligation under California's Master Plan for Higher Education to provide excellent undergraduate and graduate education — in the case of UC, a top-tier, research university education. Micromanagement by the Legislature would be the fastest route to educational mediocrity.

In fact, the Legislature did a tremendous disservice to students at community colleges — the higher education system it does control — by failing to raise fees and use that money to add more classes and provide financial aid to students who can't afford the increase. If the fees had risen by $10 a unit, they would still have been the least expensive in the nation; as it is, students can't get the courses they need to graduate and to move on to one of the four-year systems.

Legislators are proposing similar treatment of UC and Cal State, with limits on student fees, a freeze on executive compensation and even cancellation of UC's freedom from legislative regulation altogether. These tactics will work if what the state wants is a system of schools with fading reputations.

Colleges and universities across the nation, prompted by ubiquitous rankings based on factors that often have nothing to do with the quality of education, have been engaging in an academic arms race for top managers and star professors, who command big salaries. It's a race that has gone to extremes, and California could indeed choose to drop out of it. But it would do so at a tremendous cost.

The University of California was created because visionary leaders saw the advantage of bringing great minds to the state and keeping them here; to maintain its academic stature and bring in top-level students, it must continue to do that. In a state where too many functions fail to rise even to the level of average, UC succeeds, despite severe challenges, in fulfilling this mission. The last thing that's needed in the delicate calculus of higher education are the stomping boots of interfering politicians.

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