I am, I confess, old enough that when I turned 18, I was not allowed to vote. I am, however, young enough that I was allowed to vote before I turned 21. Indeed, one of the things students in my day advocated was the right to vote by the time we reached an age when we could be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam — as a lot of us were. It was with great excitement that I cast my first ballot, and I have never lost the thrill I feel when exercising this great right and privilege of democratic life. As Election Day nears, I urge all of you who are citizens to vote.
As you vote and as you think through the issues and candidates that make up this year’s ballot, I would also urge you to think through not just the choices in front of you but also the vital need to develop the kind of political literacy and engagement that is so urgently needed in and for our times. It is not for me to suggest how you actually vote, but I can remind you that votes in the past have played a critical role in your lives today. California is well known not just for its influential governors but also for its life-changing initiative process. One such initiative — if I may insert another autobiographical note — was passed the year I moved to California the first time to take up a teaching job at Caltech. I refer here to Proposition 13.
When Prop. 13 was passed in 1978, it was represented as ameliorating the financial conditions of retired residents whose property taxes would only marginally increase in perpetuity in order to address the needs of those on fixed incomes. What it did more broadly was to presage an impending crisis for the funding of education in the state of California. California used to have one of the best-funded and most successful systems of public K-12 education, but, alas, we have slipped from leading the nation to being one of the lowest in terms of investment for our students. And while the 10 campuses of the University of California continue to constitute the most extraordinary accomplishment of public higher education anywhere, we are currently at an inflection point that justifies collective concern and political resolve. Here at UC Berkeley, we have lost half of our state funding just in the last 10 years; put in even more dramatic terms, whereas in 2004 — the year my predecessor began his time as chancellor — the state provided roughly 34 percent of our budget, it now provides only 12 percent.
Ironically, even with our much-reduced level of state funding, we continue to define ourselves not just as a public university but as a university that takes as central its public mission. And yet, even with state budget surpluses, we receive far less each year in incremental state funding than we need just to meet basic and mandated costs, leave alone the need to recognize the high cost of living for staff and faculty. We are falling behind in terms of state support for new areas of research, for new — and many old — student programs, not to mention for needed monies for seismic upgrades, capital improvements and basic infrastructural maintenance. As students know only too well, while some ground was made up by the heroic efforts of so many to increase the level of philanthropy in support of our university, the regents had no choice but to raise tuition levels for UC students to help compensate for the state’s dramatic and continuing disinvestment in higher education.
Fortunately, increased levels of tuition have also led to increased levels of financial aid for those in need: At present, 40 percent of our students pay no tuition at all, and we have close to the lowest level of student indebtedness of any public university in the United States. At the same time, however, the governor of our state needs to be convinced that meeting the manifest needs of the university is in the interest of the state and its citizens. The research we conduct supports the innovation and discovery that fuel economic activity. Similarly, support for our students remains essential as they embark on the same life-changing journey generations of California residents have been able to take precisely because of our excellent and extensive system of public higher education.
Even as we embrace new opportunities to collaborate with the private sector to support education, research and public service, we lament the extent to which the university is no longer widely seen as a public good. We proudly proclaim our public mission, and mean by this all that we do, from educating students about fundamental human debates and issues, to offering real social mobility to generation after generation of Californians, from creating and disseminating cutting edge knowledge in areas ranging from biomedical science to data analytics, cosmology and climate change, from economics to sociology. Our public mission consists as well in the multiple ways we drive the innovation economy of Northern California; UC Berkeley is always at the forefront of new discoveries while also holding high a shared commitment to making the world a better place.
Citizens have choices about how they wish society to be shaped. In California, education has traditionally been seen as a critical social good and as necessary for the economic, cultural and scientific success of our state, as well as for the personal fulfillment of all our students. But the compact that led to our investments in education at every level and that created the finest public higher education system in the world seems frayed. If you are concerned about the future of the compact, you need to be politically engaged. Begin by exercising your right to vote. Remember, too, that students constitute a powerful group in any polity — and they did so even when they (we) didn’t have the right to vote. We need to hear your voice in the choices our state makes about our present and future — it is, after all, your future.
Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.