The news from UC Berkeley is ominous—one of the world’s great research universities is facing a $150 million deficit and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has announced a process to “reimagine” the campus in light of the “new normal”. That re-imagining will inevitably mean cutbacks in staffing levels and curriculum and undercut UC Berkeley’s ability to deliver first-class academic performance, groundbreaking research and positive social change. As UC Berkeley graduates, we find this troubling.
What is happening at UC Berkeley is symptomatic of what all of the University of California, the California State University system and our community colleges face. Deep cuts in State support for public higher education have only been partially restored in the last few years. Tuition and fees have been forced upward and all three segments of our public higher education system have been constrained in their ability to accommodate the needs of tens of thousands of qualified California students.
Despite the progress that has been made by Governor Brown and the Legislature to begin re-investing in higher education, State funding remains far below historic levels. In the 1980s, half of the Berkeley campus’ budget came from Sacramento. In 2014-15, it was 13%. Tuition and fees now bring in about 30% of the UC Berkeley budget. For the entire University of California system, per student funding from the State is down about a third from where it was in 2007-08.
Let’s be clear, the re-imagining process announced by Chancellor Dirks is not a bad thing. The Chancellor is taking the only responsible course, particularly, in light of the continued anemic level of State funding and other economic realities. Every institution should be constantly re-evaluating its operating structure, program content, staffing and physical needs in light of projected revenues and public demand. But let’s not kid ourselves—academic excellence and student access are not going to be enhanced by further cutbacks. To cope with diminished State support over the past two decades, all of our public higher education campuses already have become leaner and more efficient.
It isn’t just students and their families who are impacted by our higher education system. As University of California President Janet Napolitano has pointed out, California wouldn’t be California without these colleges and universities. From high tech and biotech to agriculture and entertainment, our most critical industries are built upon the foundation of basic research and a highly skilled workforce that are produced by these campuses. It is hard to imagine the economic and innovative firepower coming out of the Silicon Valley without UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, along with Stanford.
The Public Policy Institute of California has projected that the California economy will need to have an additional million plus college educated workers in the next decade. Where are those workers going to come from? We rely on the California State University system to provide K-12 teachers, law enforcement personnel, firefighters, nurses, business people and more. The University of California turns out physicians, scientists, engineers, artists, writers, economists, attorneys and business executives. The community colleges provide career training and a path to four-year colleges.
As much discussion as there is about income inequality and the need for economic mobility and opportunity, the one certain way to climb the economic ladder is through a college education. With advances in technology, this is even truer today.
There are certainly many priorities facing policymakers in Sacramento, but we must reinvest in higher education. California rightly boasts the finest public higher education system in the world. It would be a tragedy if our campuses were forced to “reimagine” themselves into anything less.
Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine are Co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former legislator who served as State Senate Republican Leader. Levine is a former Democratic member of the State Assembly and Congress. Both are graduates of UC Berkeley.