When I was 10 years old, my father died of cancer. My mother took up his job as a sales rep for a clothing manufacturer. Times may have been tough, but public schools — from grade school all the way through UC Berkeley and its MBA program — provided a pathway to opportunity that my mother otherwise could not have afforded.
It cost $75 a semester to attend Berkeley in the late 50s. As every student knows, that barely will buy a textbook these days, let alone make a dent in five-figure fees. My mother today would not be able to put her son through this public university.
While there’s still some misinformation being flung about, I suspect most people have come to realize that the root cause for rising tuition at the University of California is state disinvestment, plain and simple.
To be fair, the recession has cut significantly into state revenues. Political paralysis has enveloped Sacramento. And a straitjacketed budgeting process has made public higher education vulnerable, one of the few categories that lawmakers have the discretion to cut.
Well, it’s time start eliminating the excuses.
This is why — speaking as a UC Berkeley alumnus, a businessman and, most importantly, as a Californian — I fully endorse Gov. Brown’s proposed tax initiative.
As you probably have heard, the governor blended elements of his initial proposal with those of the socalled “Millionaire’s Tax Initiative.” It’s a compromise and, like all compromises, it won’t make everybody happy.
But remember the wisdom of Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman: “All government — indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and prudent act — is founded on compromise and barter.”
In my decade on the Board of Regents, I’ve frequently made the point that the state has acted as an unreliable partner when it comes to public higher education in general and to the UC in particular.
I’m not backing away from that position, but the fact is we can no longer afford for the state to be an unreliable partner. We have to do something to make it a reliable partner.
My hope is that passage of the governor’s initiative — which has been preceded by some serious belt-tightening across state government — will allow the political leadership in Sacramento to resume providing the level of funding needed to return fiscal stability to the UC.
This will be good for students, for faculty, for staff employees and, in a larger sense, for California and the nation. Understand, the stakes transcend one simple tax proposal. This is about restoring one of the very core values of this country — the idea of America as a meritocracy, as a society which allows everyone the opportunity to succeed.
This value is in danger, reflected by growing and well-documented income inequalities. Extreme gaps between the wealthy and the poor over the long term make a society unstable.
One of the most useful levers to address income inequality is, yes, education. Over the past 32 years, the income earned by college graduates has risen by 15.7 percent in real dollars. Pay for workers without a college diploma, by contrast, has dropped by 25.7 percent in the same time period.
At the same time, success in a fastchanging, information-driven and increasingly globalized economy, a world where innovation will be king, requires investment in human capital, in brainpower.
These are reasons why it’s important to reverse what has been done to California’s public universities. Remember, as California goes, so goes the nation — and, arguably, the world.
To be clear, in this long slide, we have not just been sitting with our hands out. Under President Yudof, a new leadership team in Oakland has developed smarter ways to finance the system and has pursued a host of administrative efficiencies. The central office has been downsized. We’ve begun to explore the potential of online learning. And we are becoming more aggressive in our fundraising, especially for scholarship money.
But the truth is, we can only cut so much before we begin to erode the quality of our academic mission. The truth is, every time the state political leaders cut our funding they are advertising to the rest of the world that the UC is on a downhill slide. The attempt by other quality universities to hire away our best faculty is unrelenting.
Restored public funding is essential to the future of this institution. It would demonstrate once again an enlightened and steadfast commitment — by the people of California, for the future of California — to creating an educated citizenry and a pathway to opportunity for all qualified students who deserve their shot.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be one of them.
Author’s note: The preceding is an adaptation of remarks given by Blum at the March meeting of the UC Board of Regents.
Richard C. Blum graduated from UC Berkeley in 1958 and is a member of the UC Board of Regents.
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