Governor, students need your leadership

Graham Haught/Staff

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was previously published in the California Aggie.

Here at the University of California, students are living in interesting times.

After nearly a billion dollars in state funding cuts and a doubling of tuition in just five years, 2013 looks to deliver at least a moment of relief for students and their families. The governor has proposed a moderate funding increase to the university, and as a result, for the first time in years, tuition will be frozen in 2013-14.

We didn’t get here overnight. The Occupy Movement, the huge student response to police brutality at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, a 10,000-student march in March 2012 and hundreds of lobby visits and rallies all brought us to this moment.  And most recently, with the assistance of online voter registration, students turned out to vote in record numbers in 2012, helping provide the margin of victory for Proposition 30.

Yet it is clear that our work has only just begun.  This brief moment of relief has not brought with it a long-term solution to the crisis in higher education.  The reality on our campuses is still unacceptable: skyrocketing student debt, unaffordable tuition, especially for middle-class families; inadequate student support services overcrowded classes and cuts to courses; departments, faculty and staff.

While Brown has pledged regular 4 to 5 percent funding increases over the next four years, this isn’t nearly enough to keep up with rising costs or backfill years of deep cuts.  The UC system receives almost a billion dollars less than we did in 2006, and costs continue to shoot up rapidly every year.  If nothing changes, it is only a matter of time before the crushing reality of annual tuition increases returns.

For this reason, students welcome the governor’s newfound interest in the UC system with great hope and excitement.  We also know that funding cuts are only part of the problem.  Similar to the governor’s recent call for greater “modesty” and “elegance” at the university, students have long raised questions and concerns about internal UC operations.

At a time when students are being asked to give more and more, Californians expect the UC system to take a hard look at executive compensation, sharing profits across the system and more cost-effective ways to accomplish our core goals of instruction and research. UC executives should be paid less, and in some cases, faculty may need to teach more.

Unfortunately, the governor’s actions on the UC system have not yet matched his rhetoric.  The two areas of “reform” that he has touted as solutions are a “unit cap,” which is based on the misguided view that many UC students are staying too long by choice, and a $10 million earmark for “online education.”  While experimenting with online education may be worthwhile, it is dubious that it will bring either significant cost savings or a new instructional model that meets long-held quality standards.

We would expect more from a governor who is clearly interested in making waves. Unit caps and online education seem like mostly hype and disconnected from the challenges and barriers we face on a daily basis.

If the governor wants true transformation of the university, he will find willing partners in UC students, as long as this transformation enhances quality, access and affordability rather than further degrades it.

And if the governor truly wants to protect the greatness of our public university system, he must talk not just about reform but also about the need for enhanced long-term funding.

There is no other way to ensure access and affordability for every qualified California student in the coming decades.

The UC system remains drastically underfunded, and we need the governor to advocate for new revenue devoted to public higher education, including exploring an oil severance tax, Proposition 13 reform and shifting funds from our still overcrowded prison system. Without new revenue, we can be sure that students will continue to be asked to foot the bill.

With UC President Mark Yudof stepping down and five openings for new appointees to the UC Board of Regents, the time is now. After years of playing defense, students hope to join the governor in going on the offensive, including ensuring that students have a major role in selecting a new UC president and new regent appointments that bring the experience needed to lead the UC system in the 21st century.

Students may have received a moment of relief in 2013, but we know from experience that without real action, it will be short.  Our future, quite literally, depends on it.

Raquel Morales is the president of the UC Student Association.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]