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Visions in the Desert Kingdom

Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

A Call to Action
By Dan Mitchell

After World War II, the visionaries of the University of California Master Plan created a university system that became the envy of the world. Now after 20 years of declining state support and indifference by the public that system is suffering a full blown crisis. More and more, the UC is turning to those who benefitted most—its alumni. They are calling on them to advocate and support the universities from which they received “an ivy league education for a community college price.”

The UC system is suffering a full blown economic crisis and the University is turning to its alumni.

Coral Castillo, Marshall ’10, is a model student of modest means, with the most public-spirited of goals: She wants to work in the public or nonprofit sector, perhaps for an environmental organization. While she was still attending high school in Los Angeles, she worked on the yearbook staff every day for two hours before heading off to her local community college, where she studied history and physics. Now a senior at UC San Diego, she works 18 hours a week while taking more than a full load of classes.

When she graduates this spring, she will be $28,000 in debt and unable to go on to graduate school—her plan until this year when the University of California, reacting to yet another cut in state funding, raised fees by an eye-popping 32 percent.

Castillo’s experience illustrates the struggles facing UC students as state and university leaders scramble for solutions to the financial crisis facing California’s institutions of higher learning. Her father is a buyer for a spice company, and her mother is a custodian at the same community college where Castillo took classes. Together, her parents earn just enough to make both Coral and her younger brother Ivan, a junior, ineligible for the level of financial aid that would have covered all their fees except for room and board. She has received government grants, but the difference between those and the amount she shells out has grown larger every year as fees have shot up. The grants “covered everything when I was a freshman—books, fees, everything,” she says. “When I was a sophomore, they only covered fees. Now they don’t even cover that.”

She’s only halfheartedly researching graduate schools because she’s almost certain she will have to take a full-time job for at least a year before continuing her education.

What is perhaps most disheartening is that Castillo, thanks purely to timing, might be one of the lucky ones. The students coming up behind her will likely face bigger hardships, larger debts, and the possibility of a greatly diminished educational experience. Thanks to the state cutting its contribution, the UC system will suffer a shortfall of $813 million this year. As a consequence, UC San Diego is losing faculty, cutting admissions and seeing yet another rise in the ratio of faculty to students. And the experience of attending college is being degraded not only by program cuts, but in countless smaller ways as well—fewer library hours, higher fees for services, cancellation or cutbacks in extracurricular activities.

Today, UC San Diego is a top-ranked research university, and recognized by U.S. News and World Report as the 7th best public university in the nation. But with the campus facing a state cutback of $84.2 million (about 27 percent less than the campus got from the state last year), academic excellence could be at risk.

Although $84.2 million is a small part of UC San Diego’s total budget of $2.5 billion, the cut has effects that are geometrically ­outsized. That’s because state money—although making up only 20 percent of the overall UC system’s budget—funds core programs and salaries. Much of the rest of the budget comes from student fees, federal research grants and contracts, with the last two most often designated for specific programs. In other words, state money is the lifeblood of the UC system.

In July, when the state legislature was still working out the budget, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said that the faculty-to-­student ratio was already so high that “students might not be able to graduate on time.”

Just a few years ago, the faculty-student ratio was about 20 to 1. By the end of this year, Fox estimates, it will be double that. That means less face time with professors, fewer papers being assigned, and fewer opportunities for special help. Even just asking questions during a lecture becomes a competitive challenge. And worst of all, it means some classes will fill up quickly, forcing students to attend ­college longer than they had planned, in order to fulfill all the requirements for their major. The campus has laid off about 200 employees and has either eliminated or frozen about 800 staff ­positions. And forget about hiring faculty this year. UC San Diego has about 100 unfilled faculty positions. The campus was also forced to admit about 550 fewer freshmen this year.

“The state had to do something to make up for the budget shortfall, but legislators were incorrect in deprioritizing higher education,” says Utsav Gupta, Sixth ’10, a fourth-year bioengineering major who is president of Associated Students of UC San Diego. “After all, higher education is an engine of economic growth” that ultimately adds to state coffers. “The state seems to have lost sight of that.”

The budget shortfall at UC San Diego is being covered through a combination of employee furloughs (salary cuts), which will save about $25 million; program reductions and restructuring, which will save about $20 million; and a one-time internal debt restructuring of about $40 million.

UC San Diego is both a magnet and a catalyst for acclaimed ­institutes and Nobel laureates. The University’s award-winning scholars are experts at the forefront of their fields with an impressive track record for achieving scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs. But increasingly, there are worries over a “brain drain” among top faculty and administrators. Traditionally, faculty members have made sacrifices to work in the UC system. But at what point do those sacrifices outweigh the prestige of the position—a prestige that is being diminished with each program cut? Salaries for professors in the UC system are, by some estimates, ­already 10 percent below those at comparable institutions around the country.  How much lower can they go?

And how much longer can the UC maintain its reputation for quality? Some observers have said that serious threats to the reputation of the UC system are imminent.

In a disturbing illustration of the problem, Isaac Barchas, ­director of the Austin Tech­nology Incubator and associate director of the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas, has called on his university to take advantage of the UC’s problems by hiring away some of Cali­fornia’s top faculty.

Citing the UC’s history as an incubator of talent and knowledge for Silicon Valley and the biotech cluster around UC San Diego, Barchas wrote that while the situation is a “tragedy for California,” it is also a “remarkable opportunity” for Texas. “The payoff would be enormous,” he wrote.

The Need for Advocacy
To be sure, the Regents and, in particular, Mark Yudof, president of the University of Cali­fornia system, have come in for a lot of criticism in the months since the current crisis came to a head. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine’s Deborah Solomon in September, Yudof made some remarks that led some in the press to attack him for not taking the problem seriously.

But he obviously does. On the UC website, in response to why student fees must be raised, he notes, “We’re being forced to impose a user tax on our students and their families. This is a tax necessary because our political leaders have failed to adequately fund public higher education.”

Critics have focused on his choice of words more than on his ­actions. And since the summer, his office and the Board of Regents have mounted a campaign to get the state, in its 2010-2011 budget, to restore the financing that was lost during the last budget negotiation—and then some. The Regents voted in November to ask the state for $913 million. “While I appreciate the fiscal challenges that confront California,” Yudof said in announcing the campaign, “it must be made clear that UC is not a luxury. It is an investment—the best investment this state can make in its future.”

Yudof also announced a fundraising campaign to raise about $1 billion in private support over the next four years to increase financial aid for undergraduate and graduate students. And he proposed that the Board of Regents raise the income limit on the “Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan” to $70,000. The financial aid plan, which was ­introduced in February 2009, was launched to support college access for lower-income families and students. It now pays all fees for students whose families earn less than $60,000.

With the long term in mind, the Board of Regents, meanwhile, has created the Com­mis­sion on the Future, which is studying ways to “maintain access, quality and affordability in a time of diminishing resources.”

In a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Yudof wrote that the “decades of underinvestment in students” can’t be blamed on anyone. He wrote that he has “the utmost respect for the governor and our legislative officials” but it is “the system that is broken, not the people.”

In a way that’s true. For starters, there’s the constitutional requirement that all tax increases have to be approved by a 2/3 majority in both houses of the state legislature. That has made appropriations for education increasingly difficult for decades.

Alumni Will Make the Difference
In addition to parents, faculty and staff, and the public at large, alumni make up another constituency that could help turn the tide. UC system-wide, alumni have come across in a fairly substantial way, with both money and lobbying efforts. That’s less true at UC San Diego, campus alumni leaders say.

Historically, UCSD graduates have not been substantial ­supporters of their alma mater, either financially or as advocates. However, that may be a simple matter of demographics. “Although UC San Diego’s alumni skew young,” says Armin Afsahi, Revelle ’90, assistant vice chancellor for Alumni Affairs, “we believe that preserving public education and the promise of UCSD is a rallying cause that all of our alumni can galvanize around. And we are ­already seeing signs they are getting the message.”

And that message is now loud and clear. In her most recent interview with this magazine, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox asks alumni to get engaged in the process. “We need multiple voices telling the California legislature that the funds they allocate to the UC campuses, to the CSUs and to the community colleges constitute one of the most significant investments they can make in our future,” she says. Fox also reminds those who have donated to political incumbents that they are well placed to make logical arguments about the value of a UC degree. And in September, the University launched “Invent the Future,” a three-year, fundraising campaign to raise $50 million in scholarships and fellowships, which will support undergraduates such as Castillo and Gupta, as well as thousands of graduate students.

“We need the support of alumni now more than ever, especially when it comes to lobbying,” says Mark Diamond, Third/Marshall ’87, the immediate past president of the UCSD Alumni Association, “UC is the seed corn of the California economy. The last thing you want to do is eat your seed corn.” But that’s just what legislators are doing by cutting funding. If things don’t improve, he says, “in five to 10 years, we could end up with a frankly mediocre institution.”

And that is something that leaders of UCSD are determined will not happen “We will not sit idly by and watch the quality of ­education at this great University destroyed, and that is why we are reaching out to our alumni base and asking them to give back,” says Steve Relyea, vice chancellor of External and Business Affairs. “As the State walks away from its obligation to support higher ­education, we need to pull together to ensure the quality of UC San Diego is sustained and grows. I firmly believe that the best days of this remarkable institution are still ahead of us.”

To learn more about Invent the Future: The UC San Diego Student Support Initiative, click here or call (858) 534-1610.

Dan Mitchell is a journalist in Oakland, Calif.