Members of the UC Berkeley community were called to action at Tuesday’s forum on social inequality and social opportunity, urged by the panel of speakers to advocate for changes to state legislation that will make education more accessible.
The first of four events in a series called the “Campus Forum on the Future of Public Universities,” centered around the inequities that exist in California’s public education system — lack of consistent quality, lack of cooperation between the community colleges and four-year universities and lack of funding that drives up prices and limits access to students in the lower and middle socioeconomic classes.
The approximately 200 students, faculty and staff members at the forum heard from featured speakers Angela Glover Blackwell, Robert Reich and Peter Schrag, all of whom have expertise in the area of social policy and express interest in improving access to education as a key to closing the gap of wealth in both California and the rest of the United States.
“We’re in a vicious cycle where the wealthy and the upper-middle class have seceded to private institutions, leaving less political support for public goods and services,” said Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton and UC Berkeley public policy professor.
According to Schrag, former editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies, California was once the model for the rest of the country, but it is now 46th in the nation in money spent per student, 50th in students per teacher, 49th in students per librarian, 49th in students per counselor and 46th in students per administrator.
While statewide advocacy campaigns like UC for California and campus-based demonstrations have failed to prevent the state’s disinvestment in public higher education — $650 million in cuts have been enacted this year alone — Reich said the public must express its displeasure to the legislators that represent it.
“Regardless of the quality of people you’ve got in government, nothing good happens unless people outside (of government) are mobilized, organized and energized to push the people inside (of government) to do the right thing,” Reich said. “An excellent university like this will not lose its excellence. It’ll lose its economic diversity, and that’s what would be the greatest shame.”
Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, said people should organize around the issue of academic equality and not rush out to an occupation like Occupy Wall Street without a specific goal.
“It takes a movement to do what’s right under these circumstances,” Blackwell said. “I want to see us as a nation make sure we’re providing support for low-income students; I want to see universities demonstrate that they’re making that commitment and I also want to see the public rising up and saying, ‘We want to have a fully equal society.’”
Reich presented a radical solution — students would not pay anything while attending school but would pay a percentage of their income after they graduate and begin full-time work — that would ensure all students admitted to the UC could afford it.
Schrag presented a simpler solution.
“People need to find politicians not afraid of using the T-word,” Schrag said. “Tax the rich.”
The forum was sponsored by the Council of Deans, campus Academic Senate, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration, Graduate Assembly and Berkeley Staff Assembly.