Initiative in progress could limit public college tuition increases

A UC Berkeley professor is working with former presidential candidate Ralph Nader to create an initiative for the November state ballot that would limit tuition increases in California’s public colleges.

The idea to get an initiative on the ballot — whose specifics would be determined by UC Berkeley faculty and staff — was conceived in conversations between Nader and campus computer science professor Brian Barsky around tuition increases.

“The key idea is to use the tool of direct democracy — the initiatives that we can put on the California ballot,” Barsky said. “One potential driving force is the thousands and thousands of students in California, because mobilizing them could have significant impact.”

Nader and Barsky became acquainted when Barsky co-taught a freshman seminar with Nader’s sister, campus anthropology professor Laura Nader, and art history professor Margaretta Lovell. Barsky invited Nader to speak to the class, which examined the effect of athletics on the UC’s academics-focused core mission.

Barsky’s idea for the initiative was spurred by the fact that current UC tuition is more than 10 times the amount that it was when he first joined the faculty 30 years ago. UC tuition increased twice last academic year — an 8 percent increase in November 2010 and a 9.6 percent increase in July 2011.

Nader said in an interview with The Daily Californian that a group of students and faculty will need to come together to determine the specific goals of the initiative — like exact limits to the percentage tuition can increase annually, or a total freeze on tuition increases.

“With the students having such an interest in not having their tuition going through the roof, and with their parents having an even greater interest, with millions people combined, you can qualify an initiative in a month with tables all over the campus,” Nader said.

Once those terms are agreed upon, University of San Diego law professor Richard Fellmeth plans to draft the language for the initiative to be submitted to the California secretary of state’s office by March 2.

Nader’s suggestion for the initiative is a freeze on tuition, citing that UC tuition has tripled over the last decade.

However, according to  UC spokesperson Dianne Klein, a freeze on tuition increases could lead to a decrease in quality across the university given the cuts in funding at the state level.

She acknowledged that an endless series of tuition increases would be untenable but questioned whether the matter should be decided by the ballot initiative process.

“If, for example, the state continues to fund UC — or more accurately, de-fund UC at its current level — the system must come up with funds from someplace,” Klein said. “We will not allow our public university system to slide into mediocrity, and this at a time when the need for a highly skilled, college-educated population is greater than ever.”

Barsky said even though the state has cut funding for higher education, steep UC tuition increases could be avoided if the university prioritized its spending on its core educational mission and reduced spending on non-academic endeavors.

“An initiative win would put students in a significant position of power in the state and in the state legislature,” Nader said. “It would force a more rational focus on the allocation of the higher education budget. A freeze would basically say enough is enough.”

Christopher Yee covers Berkeley communities.