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How will the University of California survive?

Created: 17 July, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
6 min read

 The impact of the economic crisis on the University of California has been in the headlines over the last two weeks. 

 Last Saturday’s Union Tribune article on the UC budget meltdown drew heavily on a letter that was signed by 23 department chairmen at UC San Diego. Unfortunately, this has been the only public proposal from UCSD faculty and so all of us who teach there have been tainted with its self-serving recommendations.

 Although the tone of sociology professor Andy Scull’s original letter gave the impression that he was contesting the current UC regime, in many ways the logic of what he proposed coincided perfectly with where the UC was heading long before the economic crisis.

 Professor Scull and the other department chairs who signed his letter urged UC President Yudof and the regents to consider “closing campuses and enrolling more out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition, to minimize long-term damage to the UC’s more accomplished campuses.”

 As the privatization of the UC continues (UCSD, for example, is a public university in name only with only 6% of its budget coming from the state), more out-of-state and international students will be admitted. This has been a shift desired by some for several years now. The mission of the UC that says we should be serving the people of California is sacrificed on the altar of revenue flow. 

 UCSD then becomes a finishing school for out-of-state students from rich families and affluent foreigners. The University of Michigan, now almost fully privatized and being talked about as a model for the new UC, currently enrolls more international students than Mexican American students. 

 Once the three “elite” UC campuses make the transition to being in essence private schools, working class and minority students will slowly disappear from their classrooms. Again, this is already happening due to increased tuition (which Scull supports) and enrollment caps. But if UC were to adopt Scull’s plan and wipe out the campuses with the most underrepresented students—Riverside and Merced—you accelerate the process.

 Of course, this has already happened at the professional schools where Blacks and Chicanos can be counted on one hand. In Scull’s scenario, by 2040 when Latinos make up a majority of the state not just the professional schools but the entire UC will be closed to all but a handful of them (although large numbers of them will be academically qualified). Talented 2%, anyone?

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 It will be argued that wealthy out-of-state and foreign students paying higher fees will subsidize financial aid for less affluent students. But this positive scenario depends on the kind of successful outreach to working families that has never been the norm at UCSD. 

 The one area where UCSD has made progress in terms of enrolling more Chicano and Black students has been community college transfers. A likely outcome of the crisis is that foreign transfers begin to displace local transfers. The percentage of foreign students among transfers is already higher than it is among new freshmen.

 The twin elephants in the budget crisis room that UC administrators and faculty have chosen to ignore are class and race privilege. In the case of UC San Diego, it’s in the institutional DNA. When campus founder Roger Revelle first imagined a La Jolla campus in the late 1950s, he saw it as an exclusive “seedbed for future leaders.” The unwashed masses, he implied, could attend San Diego State.

 The reaction in the central valley to the now infamous letter from the UCSD 23 was rightfully angry and to the point. The Fresno Bee’s Bill McEwen put forth one of the better analyses: “So, faced with the challenge of making do with less — as millions of Californians are doing — what did some of the purportedly best and brightest at UC San Diego come up with? Close down the newest UC serving some of the poorest towns in America, a region where thousands of bright, industrious youngsters are working to someday become the first college graduates in their families. I’ve got a better idea. That campus they’ve got down there in tony La Jolla, where some two-bedroom condos — I kid you not — list for $2 million? Shutter the university, sell everything off and start all over in Brawley.” Or maybe Chula Vista.

 Although late last week UC President Yudof rejected the idea of closing campuses, it is important to understand the logic behind what the UCSD 23 suggested—a “disaster capitalism” solution in which the crisis allows those at the top to maintain their privilege, facilitates privatization, and further fetishizes the notion of “excellence.” Elite sectors of each campus will become more exclusive as rich, i.e., externally funded, departments turn into gated communities surrounded by the mini-ghettos of under funded programs that are unable to generate their own revenue.

 It’s curious to see that so many department chairs at UCSD whose own programs could be negatively affected signed on to the letter, e.g. History, Communication. If the crisis continues for two or three more years, as some predict, smaller programs like African American and Chicano/Latino studies will no doubt shrink and may eventually disappear. Big-time donors willing to drop a million dollars on academic programs designed to question economic and cultural injustice simply don’t exist.

 Is there a way out of the crisis for the UC? President Yudof’s contention that if the university could only explain to the people of California how much the UC does for them they would rally to its defense founders on the shoals of powerful stereotypes about “lazy ‘radical’ professors.” If this crisis does nothing else, it hopefully will destroy once and for all the fantasy that “Marxist professors” are running the University of California. 

 The UC is a giant corporation replete with over-paid executives, a cadre of increasingly entrepreneurial and hyper-professionalized faculty, and an army of over-worked staff and instructors. Milton Friedman would approve; Marx most certainly would not.

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 On Wednesday, the UC Regents rubber stamped a furlough/pay cut for faculty and staff. Only Lt. Gov. John Garamendi voted against it. Unless the Regents and elected officials come up with new ways for the state to support higher education, the UC system will continue its decline. The Cal State campuses will follow close behind. Who will be the real losers in all of this?—the hopes and dreams of generations of future working and middle class California students.

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