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The future after Proposition 30

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NOVEMBER 13, 2012

Proposition 30, approved by California voters last Tuesday, has allowed the state’s educational systems to duck a bullet: We’ve avoided massive trigger cuts and other revenue losses that would have been imposed had the proposition not been approved. The proposition’s temporary increases in sales taxes and top-bracket income taxes will generate about $6 billion a year.  For the University of California, Prop. 30’s passage prevents $250 million in cuts and allows the state to make good on commitments of $125 million in additional funds that would  have evaporated had the proposition been defeated. A benefit that everyone at the university can cheer about: A midyear tuition hike will not be needed.

By passing Prop. 30, voters committed to pay more taxes to support public education. We now have our work cut out for us — to deliver on the promise of a public education system grounded on principles of access, affordability and excellence. We should use the respite Prop. 30 offers us to solidify our commitment to public education.

We have the opportunity to develop a compelling case explaining why public education matters.  As members of the UC community, we believe that public education is an investment in our collective future — that public education not only produces the workforce that grows the economy but is fundamental to a society that is tolerant, inclusive, egalitarian and democratic.   We need to figure out how to get this message across to all Californians and to build a lasting commitment to public education.

In addition, we have the opportunity to explain what it means for the UC — to be a research university. We must explain why our mission is research and service as well as teaching and why that is well worth public investment. We need to show how research and service pay off in a better quality of life for Californians and, indeed, the world.

Prop. 30 buys us some time, but there’s still much work to be done. California will need to take additional steps to undo the damage done by two decades of underfunding.  We need to reinvest in K-12, the community college system and the CSU system, as well as all 10 UC campuses. Just looking at the UC system, the list of challenges is substantial.

  • Assure affordability: UC Berkeley has coped with rising tuition by tapping into public and private resources to provide assistance to low-income students and some of the middle class. Not all UC campuses have been able to do this. It’s time to have a discussion about what level of tuition is sustainable for Californians and what it means for the state to support higher education.
  • Restore educational offerings: Cuts in faculty at many UC campuses have led to increased class sizes, fewer classes and less educational support for students. The community college system has suffered even more. Restoring the cuts will help students get the classes they need to graduate on time.
  • Accommodate enrollment growth: The state’s population continues to grow, and that means we have more UC-eligible students to accommodate. We need to expand UC capacity to honor our promise of access for the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates.
  • Make good on retirement promises: The university has a substantial unfunded liability in its UC retirement system. We need to make the commitments necessary to cover our obligations, with state funding as well as increased employer and employee contributions.
  • Provide good benefits: High-quality medical insurance is an important benefit,  but it’s costly. UC administrators will negotiate to keep medical coverage as affordable as possible, but realistically, we need to plan for cost increases. Other benefits, such as day care, are increasingly important to faculty, staff and students, and making sure we retain high-quality services will be a key objective.
  • Offer competitive salaries: Many UC salaries are below market rates. Some salary increases are committed — through union agreements or as faculty are promoted up the ranks — and must be accommodated. More generally, modest increases for faculty and  staff are necessary to keep the university’s pay rates within sight of market rates.
  • Cover increasing costs of doing business: Costs of the materials, supplies and services universities need to function have continued to rise — utilities have been especially volatile. While UC administrators are actively seeing ways to improve efficiencies and negotiate lower rates, planning for increased costs is a necessary move.
  • Invest in campus infrastructure: Campuses have deferred maintenance because of tight budgets, but there’s a limit to how long we can put off fixing leaky roofs, replacing unreliable elevators, replacing outmoded laboratories, or reinvesting in new educational technologies. These needs will have to be addressed in the coming years.

Working together, we can meet these challenges and make Prop. 30’s passage the first step toward a new commitment to higher education in California.

Elizabeth Deakin is the vice-chair of the Academic Senate at UC Berkeley.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 13, 2012